The more you dive, the more indiscreet behaviors you begin to notice. One behavior of marine life that catches my attention over and over is cleaning stations. It is amazing that tiny fish and shrimp that would normally be a tasty snack are found picking parasites and dead tissue off of large predators.


Sanitation & Symbiosis in the Sea

You know how much you enjoy a day at the spa, getting all of your blemishes and old skin removed from your face, hands, and feet? Well, a lot of reef species feel the same way! After a long nights nesting on Florida’s beaches, sea turtles often seek a relaxing spa treatment from Spanish Hogfish…

This symbiotic relationship between large marine life and small cleaner species is actually quite common throughout the Western Atlantic and Caribbean. In South Florida, Gobies, juvenile Spanish Hogfish, Bluehead Wrasse, and Pederson Cleaner Shrimp are the busy “cleaners” on the reefs. These tiny critters approach large groupers, parrotfish, surgeonfish, and other reef clients to remove parasites from their body, face, and even inside their mouths! You might see a Goatfish in a vertical, head down position, completely still; or a turtle resting on the bottom, relaxed neck, and entirely motionless…if you look close you will find cleaning fish hard at work. Such gatherings are referred to as “cleaning stations.”


While the cleaners receive a tasty meal, the “clients” are rid of harmful parasites, thus improving their health and reproductive success. Fish have been seen posing for cleaning even when there are no parasites present; perhaps they simply enjoy the tactile stimulation.


Numerous scientific studies have been published on cleaning symbiosis. For example, the original documentation by Conrad Limbaugh in 1961 showed that when cleaners are removed from a section of the reef, the abundance of fish decreases. Yet there remains little conclusive evidence of the true impact/benefit of cleaning stations.  Clearly, additional research is needed in this arena…could be a great topic for a M.S. thesis or Ph.D.!


Whether or not cleaning symbiosis is truly beneficial for the clients, it is quite fun to witness during a dive. To get a good look at a cleaning station, stop about 10 feet away for 2-3 minutes, and then make very slow approach, hopefully with a camera in hand!


If you would like to further educate yourself, here are few definitions relating to symbiosis:


Symbiosis = different kinds of organisms living together

Smaller partner = symbiont
Larger partner = host

3 Types of Symbiosis:

Commensalism = one species obtains shelter, food, or some other benefit without affecting the other species (negatively or positively)

Parasitism = symbiont benefits at the expense of the host
(ex: isopods attached to fish)

Mutualism = both partners benefit from the relationship
(ex: cleaning station; coral polyps and zooxanthellae)


Have you caught any of these unique relationships on film? Share you pictures with us on facebook: