MEPS 263:189-196 (2003)  -  doi:10.3354/meps263189

Do ectoparasites determine cleaner fish abundance? Evidence on two spatial scales

Karen L. Cheney, Isabelle M. Côté*

Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: Cleaner fish on coral reefs can have a significant impact on the diversity and distribution of their fish clients. Understanding the factors affecting the distribution of cleaners themselves therefore becomes an important consideration for elucidating the mechanisms controlling coral reef fish community structure. We hypothesised that obligate cleaner fish, which rely almost exclusively on ectoparasites gleaned from clients, should be more abundant in areas rich in their preferred prey, namely parasitic gnathiid isopod larvae. We tested predictions from this hypothesis on 2 spatial scales in the Caribbean: among reefs within Barbados, and among 6 islands spanning the Greater and Lesser Antilles. As predicted, densities of coral-dwelling cleaning gobies Elacatinus spp., which are active cleaners, were higher in areas of high rates of emergence of gnathiid larvae from the benthos. This relationship was not observed in sponge-dwelling cleaning gobies, which rely mainly on non-client-gleaned food sources. The density of coral-dwelling cleaners was also correlated with client density, but contrary to our prediction was not related to ectoparasite loads of a common reef fish client. Cleaning goby abundance is more likely to be a consequence than a cause of ectoparasite availability, since cleaning goby recruitment is usually linked to factors related to foraging, and territorial clients do not preferentially settle near cleaning gobies. Whether the link between cleaner abundance and ectoparasite availability is mediated through differential recruitment or differential survival of cleaners in parasite-rich and parasite-poor areas remains to be determined.


KEY WORDS: Cleaning symbiosis · Reef fish community structure · Gobiosoma spp.


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