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Ocean Currents

Ocean Animals Who Spark Joy by Tidying Up

Learn all about cleaning symbiosis in the ocean

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© Patricia Simpson

Spring cleaning has taken on new meaning this year. It’s a vital effort to keep our loved ones safe and a great way to use some new-found time. In the ocean, there are special creatures who help clean their fellow ocean dwellers. They have a symbiotic role, feeding off of the debris they remove, while providing a useful service for their neighbors. By keeping others clean, they play an important role in the overall health of the reefs they live in.

For example, take a look at cleaner wrasses. These fish set up cleaning stations in the ocean where fish line up for them to eat dead tissue and scales as well as remove parasites. Oftentimes their “clients” for cleaning are big predators but that doesn’t scare the wrasse. They know the power of a good clean means these predators will not eat a fish offering up such a vital service. Cleaner wrasses feel comfortable swimming into the mouths of these predators to ensure a spotless job. The touch of a cleaner fish is so calming to a predator that studies have shown they are even less likely to chase other fish after their cleaning.

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© William Goodwin

Cleaning wrasses work four-hour shifts at their underwater fish spas. During that time, they can see up to 2,000 clients! The work of a cleaning wrasse is vital to the reefs they live in. Studies have shown their work increases the survival rate, health and intelligence of the fish they treat. When the cleaner fish do their magic, it frees the fish from the annoyance of dead tissue (like an itch you can’t quite scratch!) and parasites who can drain a fish of their energy. Their important work can make their clients healthier both in mind and body.

Cleaner shrimp in Grouper Gill
© Amy DeStefanis

Cleaner shrimp often join the wrasses in the cleaning station. When they see a big predator fish come toward them, they bend their front legs and wave their antennae back and forth in a little dance. This lets them be visible to the fish and signal that they are friends, not food. Cleaner shrimp are also great doctors, removing potential parasites and cleaning fish wounds, ultimately preventing infection. In addition to dancing to advertise their service, many cleaner shrimps attract new clients through their favored home: an anemone. Fish will often look for these bright anemones to try to see if a cleaner shrimp is there to help them out.

If these super scrubbers teach us anything, it’s that a little bit of cleaning can be good for mind, body and soul. They also remind us that the spirit of cooperation is all around us, and by working together, we can face any challenge life throws at us. Their cleanings not only provide themselves sustenance but contribute to the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve. We hope these cleaning animals have sparked joy in your day.

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