Fish Cleaning Service
|Cleaner fish do their duty on The Great Barrier Reef|
The availability of a personal cleaning service could influence the real-estate choices and movements of Great Barrier Reef fish.
Coral reef ecologist Dr Lexa Grutter of The University of Queensland's School of Life Sciences has discovered the presence of controversial "cleaner fish" known as Labroides Dimidiatu is greater than simply pecking at the bodies of "client" fish to remove parasites.
In an 18-month study off Lizard Island, Dr Grutter and her team produced the first results to support the idea that interactions between cleaner fish and their clients were mutually beneficial.
Dr Grutter said although cleaning interactions were common, until recently there had been much debate over why client fish sought the services of cleaners.
"Our findings indicate that a single small and not very abundant fish has a strong influence on the movement patterns, habitat choice and local diversity and abundance of a wide variety of reef fish species," she said.
Along with fellow researchers Jan Maree Murphy and Emeritus Professor J. Howard Choat, Dr Grutter tested whether cleaner fish affected the distribution of visiting and resident fish to the areas by using a large-scale field experiment.
Her research has broad implications for understanding fish community structure and coral reef management.
"We found that the number of species of visiting client fish as well as the number of visiting individuals, when sampled by remote video and by snorkelling, were two and four fold higher, respectively, on reefs with cleaner fish than on reefs without," she said.
Fish appeared to choose reefs based on the presence of cleaner fish, Dr Grutter said.
"Our findings add to the body of work suggesting that cleaner fish have major effects on individual fish activity patterns and indirectly on demography because of the potential health benefits they may provide by removing large numbers of parasites," she said.
Her findings argue for a functionally significant role of cleaner fish on the composition of reef fish species.
"Our results suggest that caution should be exercised in allowing the removal of cleaners from reefs on a commercial scale," she said.
"Furthermore, reports of marine diseases, including those in fish, are increasing and the current trend of a warming climate will only augment this rate."
"Cleaner organisms are widespread in marine and freshwater environments. This study shows that on coral reefs the cleaner fish, Labroides Dimidiatus plays a key ecological role."