Technology Science - Fishes' sex changing linked to 'workplace' tiffs

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The researchers were surprised to find that pairs actually provide far superior service compared to individual cleaner fish. The researchers were surprised to find that pairs actually provide far superior service compared to individual cleaner fish. Nick Hobgood/WikiMedia Commons

Male bluestreak cleaner wrasses tend to punish female "co-workers" more severely if they are at high risk of turning into males, a British researcher has found.

Cleaner wrasses remove parasites from the flesh of coral reef fish in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, who visit them at special "cleaning stations" where a dominant male cleaner wrasse works with a harem of about 16 females.

"It's something like going to the hairdresser for the clients," said Nichola Raihani, a postdoctoral researcher at the Zoological Society of London Institute of Zoology.

However, the relationship between cleaner fish and their clients does involve some conflict of interest, Raihani told CBC's Quirks & Quarks in an interview set to air Saturday.

"Although cleaners will eat ectoparasites, what they actually find far more delicious is…eating the mucus of the clients and their living tissues."

Hence, cleaner fish are known to sometimes bite their clients, which typically won't tolerate that kind of treatment.

"Often, they'll just immediately swim away and say, 'I'm done here. I'm out of here. This is not good service,'" Raihani said.

Cleaner fish sometimes work in male-female pairs, and Raihani and her colleagues suspected that under those circumstances, each fish would be tempted to be the first to bite the client, before it swam away.

They were surprised to find that pairs actually provide "far superior service" compared to individual cleaner fish.

That's because a male, who is bigger than all the females, punishes his female partner if she bites a client, causing the client to swim away.

"The male will aggressively chase her around if he can catch her, he'll take a chunk out of her tail or bite of some of her scales or something like that," Raihani said.

That makes her less likely to bite a client the next time the two work together.

Raihani and her colleagues found that a male punished a female partner more severely if she was close in size to him.

They suggested that was because of cleaner wrasses' sex-changing lifestyle â€Â" all bluestreak cleaner wrasses are born female, but turn into males once they get close in size to the dominant male. Therefore, it is in the best interest of a male to try to prevent a large female from reaching his size.

"Even though these females are ostensibly a breeding partner," Raihani said, "they may be trying to fatten up and outgrow male and become the breeding male in the territory." The researchers' finding were published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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