Friday, October 4, 2013

Cleaner Wrasse: 'Doctors' of the sea

This week there was an article by Susan Scott in the Star Advertiser discussing the role of cleaner wrasses in the exfoliation of dead cells and parasites. In the article she mentioned that she had been on a long sailing trip, which meant she had 'taken a break from her grooming chores.' When she went to snorkel on a reef, she noticed as she came across some Cleaner Wrasses they took a liking for her and started to clean and exfoliate her skin.
For those who may not know much about this species, the Cleaner Wrasse plays an important role in the well being of larger fish. Hawaii has only one endemic cleaner wrasse characterized by a brilliant yellow and purple contrast. Like most wrasses, they do change sex from females to males, usually between the ages of 1 and 3 years. Some may refer to them as the 'doctors' of the sea. This is because they help remove unwanted parasites from the hosts, and therefore it could be considered that mutual relationship develops. However, there are times when the cleaner wrasse quite literally might bite off more than they can chew.

Cleaner Wrasse working on a Eight-lined Wrasse
There have been studies undertaken to determine potential conflicts which may occur between cleaners and clients (other fish) if the cleaners take out a portion of mucus or tissue from the client they are 'cleaning.' Studies by Grutter and Bshary have found that the cleaners have a greater affinity for mucus and tissue of the client than some parasites.  This could suggest that the relationship is not mutualistic. However, the study further elaborates on the findings, mentioning behavioral characteristics could play a factor in partner control. It was mentioned in the introduction that clients do control cleaner interactions through partner switching (changing to another cleaner wrasse) and even punishment. Susan Scott mentioned in her article that she felt a tickle on her leg followed by a painful little tug. I wonder whether she is now finding another cleaning station.

Further Reading:
Susan Scott’s article (Need to sign into honolulu star for full article)

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