Thursday, May 29, 2008

Symbiosis - Cleaner Shrimp

While watching the Nemo clip yesterday, I was reminded of another great scene from the movie.

That flick is just full of symbiotic relationships, even if they aren't the traditional, recognized by science ones ("Fish are friends, not food"). Of course the cleaner shrimp, Jacques, is a scientifically recognized symbiote.

"Cleaner shrimp" is a generic name given to any of three crustacean species that specialize in . . . well . . . cleaning. Mainly they clean fish but will work on other marine animals as well. These tiny shrimp will set up "cleaning stations" in open areas among coral reefs. Kind of like setting up a body and lube shop on the corner of East and Main. Once they've established themselves at their station, the cleaner shrimp perform a dance. No, it doesn't involve dressing in costumes and spinning signs that say "open for business", but it pretty much amounts to the same thing. They want to draw attention to themselves and let fish know they are ready for business, not biting.

Fish will approach the station slowly, trying very hard to look nonthreatening. They will strike non-aggressive poses or open their mouths at odd angles, anything to let the cleaner shrimp know they are there for services not appetizers. Depending on the size of the fish, the shrimp will approach alone or in groups and start cleaning. They are looking for dead scales, parasites, even bits of food that have lodged in the fish's mouth. With tiny pinchers the shrimp pluck these items from the fish's body and eat them. Cleaner shrimp will clean the host fish inside and out, even entering through the mouth and exiting through the gills. Wonderful Symbiosis. The fish get groomed, which helps their overall health, and the shrimp get a meal with no risk of becoming one. Isn't it great when a plan comes together?

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