What is ATS? Do you know about acquired territoriality syndrome?
Acquired Territoriality Syndrome
We like to believe that our fish are relatively predictable, especially with regard to compatibility. For the most part, fish are predictable in that certain combinations will almost always be impossible and some fish probably will not really care about what else is in the aquarium. For example, Guppies and Shovelnose Catfish are always going to be a bad mixture as the catfish will regard the Guppies as snacks. Similarly, the Common Plecostomus (a.k.a., algae-eater) grows to such a large size that most other fish commonly seen in community aquariums will never bother it. However, what happens when expectations fail?
Sometimes fish that we expect to be kind turn out to be rather devilish. What is worse is when a fish coexists peacefully with its tankmates for years, only to kill them when the owner's back is turned. Unfortunately, scenarios in which fish that were either thought to have gentile dispositions or were only peaceful for a time become vicious monsters are fairly common. I used to hear a complaint from my customers at least once a weak that one of their favorite fish suddenly became mean and killed the other fish in the tank. It seemed like everywhere I turned I was hearing stories of schizophrenic fish. In some cases, the carnage was due to a simple miscommunication with regard to what species are and are not compatible. For example, even though Pictus Catfish only grow to about four inches in length they can still consume small fish like most Tetras whole. This is not the type of scenario I am talking about. The problem that used to bug me was that some combinations were supposed to work, but did not. In most of these cases that did not match up to expected outcomes I have since been able to trace the problem to a single source: ATS. ATS stands for Acquired territoriality Syndrome and describes a situation in which a fish has decided to claim the entire aquarium as its territory. Fish psychology is typically a fairly mundane, entirely tangential, concern for the average aquarist, but ATS is one instance in which the mindset and tendencies of a fish cannot be ignored.
In order for ATS to occur, two opportunities have to be afforded to the fish: 1) fish that suffer from ATS have natural territorial or hierarchical tendencies and 2) fish that suffer from ATS have to be permitted to think, on some level, that the entire tank should be their space. More succinctly, ATS-prone fish (those at risk for suffering ATS) have to have natural bullying tendencies somewhere in their instinctual programming and they have to be given a certain degree of entitlement in order for ATS to take effect. As an illustration, consider Silver Hatchetfish. Silver Hatchetfish are generally considered to be fairly peaceful, but it is also well-known that Silver Hatchetfish are shoaling fish, preferring to live in fairly large groups rather than as single individuals or pairs. This social structure has particular rules and hierarchies soon develop as a result of those rules. Most aquarists do not notice the social classes of a Hatchetfish shoal due to the similarity of the constituents, but careful observers will note that some Hatchetfish bully the others, taking food first or occasionally ramming the subordinate fish. As long as the shoal is fairly large the hierarchical tendencies of Hatchetfish are "buffered" by the sheer number of possible ways in which the problem fish may interact with its own species, but Hatchetfish have been known to become pugnacious if they do not have shoalmates (not to be confused with tankmates, which are not of the same species). However, pugnacity, by itself, is not enough to label the condition as ATS. In order for ATS to take effect, the fish has to feel comfortable enough with its environment to claim it--all of it. Despondently, most home aquariums are very small when compared to the environments afforded to fish in the wild and it is very easy for a fish to memorize almost every cubic inch of an aquarium if it has lived in it for a while. Once this familiarity is reached and if the fish has no appropriate place to vent its aggression (like on members of its own species that understand its social rules), then ATS is a very probable outcome.
Moreover, ATS may occur in any community aquarium if any of the below conditions are present:
Thankfully, ATS is pretty easy to avoid if an aquarist is willing to take the steps to prevent it. On the other hand, curing ATS once it has occurred is often much less probable and some aquarists find themselves owning a species aquarium that was originally intended to be a community aquarium. Since ATS is hard to deal with if it ever occurs, it is much better for aquarists to learn how to prevent it and, fortunately, prevention is fairly simple. The best steps that can be taken to prevent ATS include the following (cross-reference with the aforementioned list of problematic conditions):
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