Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Fish Cleaners

Tropical fish the sailfin tang visits a cleaner fish.

Tropical fish the sailfin tang visits a cleaner fish.

By Stephen Luntz

Not all cleaner fish are trustworthy, so why don’t more of them get eaten?

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Cleaner fish provide a fascinating insight into the workings of evolution. Dr Lexa Grutter of the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences has pioneered research into this vital component of coral reef ecosystems. She has now added these stunning images to her insights, many of which have been reported in Australasian Science in the past.

The cleaner fish occupy specific “stations” on the reef where other fish will come when they need to have parasites removed. Grutter has revealed that some fish visit these stations 150 times each day (AS, June 1999, p.9), and a single cleaner can eat 1200 parasites a day.

The parasites probably don’t kill fish directly, but Grutter has found that larvae infected by parasites have poorer swimming performance and oxygen consumption. In the competitive environment of the reef this can be enough to ensure that a fish does not survive. Some parasites have also been implicated in transmitting blood parasites, much like mosquitoes do with malaria.

While the benefits of being cleaned are large, ensuring that the operation goes smoothly for both sides can be tricky. After all, cleaner fish would make a tasty morsel for species that are used to eating anything they can get their jaws on. It is detrimental for reef fish in general if cleaners get eaten, but no one is quite sure why no species seems to take...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.