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Glob Chang Biol. 2018 Jan;24(1):481-489. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13943. Epub 2017 Nov 14.

A decrease in the abundance and strategic sophistication of cleaner fish after environmental perturbations.

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Institute of Biology, University of Neuchâtel, Neuchâtel, Switzerland.


Coral reef ecosystems are declining worldwide and under foreseeable threat due to climate change, resulting in significant changes in reef communities. It is unknown, however, how such community changes impact interspecific interactions. Recent extreme weather events affecting the Great Barrier Reef, that is, consecutive cyclones and the 2016 El Niño event, allowed us to explore potential consequences in the mutualistic interactions involving cleaner fish Labroides dimidiatus (hereafter "cleaner"). After the perturbations, cleaner densities were reduced by 80%, disproportionally compared to the variety of reef fish clients from which cleaners remove ectoparasites. Consequently, shifts in supply and demand yielded an increase in the clients' demand for cleaning. Therefore, clients became less selective toward cleaners, whereas cleaners were able to choose from a multitude of partners. In parallel, we found a significant decline in the ability of cleaners to manage their reputation and to learn to prioritize ephemeral food sources to maximize food intake in laboratory experiments. In other words, cleaners failed to display the previously documented strategic sophistication that made this species a prime example for fish intelligence. In conclusion, low population densities may cause various effects on individual behavior, and as a consequence, interspecific interactions. At the same time, our data suggest that a recovery of population densities would cause a recovery of previously described interaction patterns and cleaner strategic sophistication within the lifetime of individuals.


El Niño; biological market; coral bleaching; cyclones; learning; marine cleaning mutualism

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