Understanding the Complexity of Cleaning Symbioses Within Coral Reef Fishes and the Effects on Community Dynamics

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

First Advisor

Richard Spieler

Second Advisor

David Gilliam


Several interspecies interactions occur within the biological realm of coral reef ecosystems. One such interaction is the cleaning symbiosis between cleaner fish and client; a type of mutualism although this categorization as mutualistic has been debated in past research.

Two main functional types of cleaner fish exist within coral reefs: obligate and facultative. Obligate cleaner fishes are relatively small in size, adopt a blue and yellow color combination coupled with a black, horizontal stripe, maintain a site-specific cleaning stations, clean throughout their entire lives, and derive most of their food from this activity whereas facultative cleaner fishes do not maintain a station and rely only partly on cleaning as juveniles and switch foraging methods as adults. A third class of cleaners has been suggested: the habitual functional type. Habitual cleaner individuals may clean only as juveniles thus making them facultative or throughout their entire lifespan like obligates, but only a selection of the population will clean.

Parasitic gnathiid isopod larvae (Crustacea: Gnathiidae) and caligid copepods (Crustacea: Caligidae) are the two most common prey items of cleaner organisms. Parasitism has been considered one of the most common consumer strategies among organisms. However, the location of marine parasites within food webs has yet to be determined due to several reasons such as having multiple stages of its life cycle feeding within different trophic levels and residing within one host for extended periods of time.

Cleaning can be examined from the perspective of the optimal foraging theory, in which an animal will forage on the most preferential food to minimize metabolic energy loss. It has been suggested the optimal foraging theory centers on two factors in cleaning symbioses: client ectoparasite load and cleaner hunger levels. Maintaining balance between these two factors appears to ensure this symbiosis remains a mutualism.

However, cheating events, mimicry, additional costs, and a lack of increasing species diversity on coral reefs provide arguments against cleaning symbioses being a mutualistic relationship. Yet, game theory models, ectoparasite removal and wound healing, and implications for marine aquaculture provide evidence for mutualisms and are suggested benefits of cleaning symbioses to coral reefs. Thus, symbiosis, overall, serves significant purposes and provides benefits to the health of coral reef inhabitants and the ecosystem as a whole.

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