Scuba Diver Australasia - - Oceans'11 -

Keep­ing the un­der­wa­ter world clean and healthy is a full-time job for some species. Of course, a bal­anced ecosys­tem in­volves the par­tic­i­pa­tion of ev­ery life form, but there is also a whole host of crea­tures that have spe­cific roles – clean­ing other an­i­mals, fil­ter­ing the wa­ter, and keep­ing some other species in check.

Sci­en­tists have re­vealed the im­por­tance of some of th­ese clean­ing species – ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in the jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­ogy, in­di­vid­ual rab­bit­fish, for ex­am­ple, visit clean­ers ev­ery five min­utes in some places! Sadly, th­ese vi­tal un­der­wa­ter in­hab­i­tants are of­ten the first to dis­ap­pear when the en­vi­ron­ment be­comes too pol­luted.

Meet the un­der­wa­ter “clean team”! Some are part-timers, oth­ers clean around the clock, and all of them mat­ter.

(Chaetodon kleinii) Dru­pella, dimidia­tus (Labroides Labroides bi­color) (Tha­las­soma lunare)

Some of the most dra­matic and in­ti­mate en­coun­ters with ma­rine life oc­cur on vis­its to es­tab­lished “clean­ing sta­tions”. Th­ese are places where an­i­mals will go to have par­a­sites, dead skin, bac­te­ria and mu­cus re­moved by other species. Clean­ers help other species avoid get­ting in­fec­tions, es­pe­cially around wounds.

Clean­ing sta­tions can be low key – lit­tle patches of reef in­hab­ited by cleaner shimp and used by fish such as groupers and moray eels, or tur­tles and reef sharks. Or, they may be dra­matic sea mounts in­hab­ited by schools Astrea, tur­ban, and ner­ite snails are just some of the sea snail species that keep pesky turf al­gae and cyanobac­te­ria un­der con­trol, pre­vent­ing it from over­grow­ing and smoth­er­ing corals and other ben­thic life.

Not all sea snails are so be­nign, how­ever – some snails, like the in­fa­mous and renowned coral killers! There are more than 100 species of but­ter­fly­fish. They are all mem­bers of the Chaetodon­ti­dae fam­ily and are also op­por­tunis­tic clean­ers, though again, for most species, the be­hav­iour is more com­mon amongst ju­ve­niles. Most adult but­ter­fly­fish tend to form monog­a­mous mat­ing pairs. of an­gelfish and vis­ited by ocean wan­der­ers like man­tas and pelagic sharks.

In some places an­i­mals will ag­gre­gate in huge num­bers on clean­ing sta­tions, and there ap­pears to be some kind of un­der­stand­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion about tak­ing turns, and a hia­tus on preda­tor/prey be­hav­iour.

Stud­ies at manta ray clean­ing sta­tions by the Ma­rine Me­gafauna Foun­da­tion have shown that dif­fer­ent species spe­cialise in clean­ing dif­fer­ent sec­tions of the man­tas’ bod­ies. For ex­am­ple, they found that Klein’s but­ter­fly­fish spe­cialise in clean­ing any bite wounds that a manta may have, whereas cleaner wrasse

and at­tend to in­side the mouth and around the gills, and moon wrasse spe­cialise in pick­ing off calagid cope­pods from the man­tas’ ven­tral sur­face.

Th­ese places are of­ten well es­tab­lished, and some have be­come big at­trac­tions as dive sites. It is im­per­a­tive that when vis­it­ing clean­ing sta­tions, divers fol­low strict codes of con­duct to pre­vent dis­turb­ing the an­i­mals’ nat­u­ral be­hav­iour.

Sponges have one of the most vi­tal roles on the reef – they fil­ter huge quan­ti­ties of wa­ter, re­mov­ing im­pu­ri­ties. Some sponges also pro­duce mas­sive amounts of oxy­gen, around three times what they con­sume. Check out pages 28–30 for more in­for­ma­tion on th­ese seem­ingly un­charis­matic, but es­sen­tial ocean in­hab­i­tants.

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