Biology has a big elephant in the room. Researchers are learning that microorganisms are critical for every aspect of the biosphere's health. Even at the scale of our own bodies, we are discovering the unexpected necessity and daunting complexity of our microbial partners. How can we gain an understanding of the form and function of these "ecosystems" that are an individual animal? This essay explores how development of experimental model systems reveals basic principles that underpin the essence of symbiosis and, more specifically, how one symbiosis, the squid-vibrio association, provides insight into the persistent microbial colonization of animal epithelial surfaces.