SPECIES THAT CLEAN
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.
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.