Cleaner Shrimp: Dentists of the Coral Reef

A Pacific Cleaner Shrimp photographed by prilfish on Flickr. Aww, look at his little eyes! Too cute.

If you’ve ever seen a saltwater fish aquarium, chances are there was a bright red shrimp with long, white antennae scurrying around in there, too. That would be a Pacific Cleaner Shrimp, also known as a Scarlet Skunk Cleaner Shrimp for the white stripe running down its back. As their more generic name implies, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp are valuable fish tank occupants for their cleaning prowess, happily eating whatever parasites and dead skin they find on their fish roommates. They’ll even clean inside the fishes’ mouths with their chelipeds (claws) like little arthropod dentists!

In the wild, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp are a common sight in coral reefs. The coral and rocks provide a place to hide from predators, as well as a convenient spot to perch and wait for clients who need their scales and teeth cleaned. This relationship between shrimp and fish is an excellent example of mutualism between species: the shrimp gets to eat, and the fish are cleansed of decay and parasites! Shrimp will even clean fishes’ wounds, which can reduce inflammation and the likelihood of infection. Interestingly, rather than hiding from fish who prey on shrimp, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp will show preference to their predators and clean them more frequently as a way of keeping the peace and saying “please don’t eat me, I’m worth more as your dentist than your lunch!”

Although common in reefs, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp can also be found in small troupes (colonies) by underwater cave entrances about 20 meters deep. Individual shrimp in a troupe tend to keep their distance, but they still get along well with one another and other shrimp species living in the same area.

Pacific Cleaner Shrimp are simultaneous hermaphrodites, which means individual shrimp are both male and female at the same time. Therefore, all Pacific Cleaner Shrimp can carry their own brood of eggs. After hatching, the shrimp larvae (called zoeae) live in the plankton and will molt fourteen times before reaching adulthood.

Unsurprisingly, Pacific Cleaner Shrimp are extremely popular in saltwater reef aquariums. However, only experience aquarium owners should purchase a dentist shrimp for themselves: they require very specific ranges in pH, temperature and salinity in order to thrive in their environment. You’ll also want to make sure that none of the fish species already in your tank view Pacific Cleaner Shrimp as food. If properly cared for, your shrimp could live for more than three years.

To finish out this post, I think we can all agree “Pacific Cleaner Shrimp” is boring and “Scarlet Skunk Cleaner Shrimp” is just rude, so let’s call them Barbershop Shrimp. For one, the Pacific Cleaner Shrimp’s stripes and long antennae are a signal alerting fish to the shrimp’s grooming services, similarly to how a barbershop pole advertises a barbershop. Secondly, barbershop poles are colored red and white to symbolize the outdated medical practice of bloodletting, which parallels to the medical side of the Pacific Cleaner Shrimp’s cleaning behavior. Lastly (and most importantly), Pacific Cleaner Shrimp antennae look like fabulous mustaches, and where do you get a mustache professionally trimmed? At a barbershop. Boom.

Of course, this means we can now refer to troupes of Barbershop Shrimp as quartets. It just gets better and better! Someone call a lawyer, a taxonomist, and National Geographic – we have an arthropod to rename.

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