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By Kira Krall
Cleaner fish are as valuable to the health of coral reef animals as the coral itself. They pick parasites off of locals and visitors alike, including oceanic sharks. The cleaner fish gets a free meal and the client is now parasite-free. However, most cleaner fish are kept honest only by the client’s ability to call out bad cleaner behavior.
“Cheating” occurs when a cleaner fish ingests any part of its client’s body that is not a parasite. This study out of Simon Fraser University in Canada examined cheating relationships between bluestreak cleaner wrasse and their clients in French Polynesia. Divers recorded the behavior of juvenile cleaner wrasse before, during, and after the passing of a motorboat.
During the boat noise period and the post-boat noise period, divers observed increases in cheating, indicated by the client jolting. While the jolt is usually paired with a bite, the clients continued to allow the wrasse to nibble on material other than the parasites. The sound of the boat likely distracted the clients from the cleaner’s cheating.
They also found that when the motorboat passed over, cleaners took an extra second to evaluate their client. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you consider how much time a wrasse spends on its daily work. An extra second of cleaning for each client means the wrasse is wasting about 18 minutes per day.
Both of these findings have far-reaching implications. The boat noise impacted the cleaners by distracting them from precious rest or feeding time and cleaner fish had their protective mucous layer nicked at by cleaners. While the mucous layer has evolved to aid in healing, any breach has the potential to let disease or infection in.
This study has given the authors significant data to support no-motor or slow zones in protected areas. Studies have also examined how ship noise affects killer whales, and similar studies have helped the port of Vancouver introduce noise-reduction plans for ships that plan to port there. Peer-reviewed research can help create a better world for marine life.
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