Nature Nugget – Fish Cleaning Stations

Fishes have thousands of scales for parasites to get under and create annoyance, but no fingers with which to scratch themselves. Cleaning stations provide that service for them. Cleaning stations are places on the coral reef where various species of fish and shrimps, known as cleaners, provide the services of parasite removal and grooming for other species. The relationship between these cleaners and their patients is a symbiotic relationship, which is beneficial to both parties involved. The cleaners benefit by feeding on the parasites and dead tissue, and the patients benefit by having these things removed from their bodies. Fish literally line up to wait their turn at these stations, and ocean-going species travel long distances to the reefs to receive this service. Species as large as sharks and Manta Rays and even sea turtles and Moray Eels visit these stations. Even the most voracious predators are careful not to harm a cleaner, allowing it to nibble everywhere and freely explore mouth and gills. The service provided at the cleaning stations is so important that the whole coral reef community would die without it.

Of the approximately fifty species of fish that are known to perform the service of cleaners, none are as well known and represented as members of the wrasse family. Cleaner wrasses or doctorfish, as they are sometimes called, are boldly marked with blue, white, black, and sometimes yellow longitudinal stripes. The cleaner wrasses advertise their services with a dance routine. The flash of their electric-blue stripe acts as a beacon to attract fish in need of cleaning. Orderly queues soon form. By rushing forward, turning sideways, and then retreating, it draws each patient into an abnormal but most accessible position. The patient then spreads its fins, opens its mouth, and lifts its gill covers. The wrasse’s tweezer-like teeth then get to work removing ectoparasites, dead skin, and tissue from old wounds. They have been known to clean up to 300 fish in a six-hour period and remove as many as 1,200 parasites a day.

Cleaner shrimp, of which there are six species, are identified with bold red bands or markings. They mate for life and work in pairs, usually at night or in crevices. Cleaner shrimp attract patients by doing a tap dance with their spindly legs. Like the cleaner wrasses, the shrimps clean the whole surface of the fish including inside the mouth and gills, picking off ectoparasites and dead tissue with their pincers. When superficial surgery is required, it is left to the cleaner shrimp, which makes small incisions in the skin with their sharp claws to remove hidden parasites. During this procedure, the patient may wince with pain, but it still remains motionless. Cleaner shrimp will even clean plaque from the teeth of scuba divers who remove their mouthpieces and open their mouths, allowing the shrimp in.

Just as the fish in the sea have to come to the cleaning stations on the coral reefs to be cleansed of their parasites, so we as sinners need to come to Christ and repent to be cleansed from the parasites of sin. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us [our] sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9. “If you are condemned, there is but one course for you to pursue: you must repent toward God because of the transgression of His law, and have faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ as the one who only can cleanse from sin.” Selected Messages, Book 1, 317.

David Arbour writes from his home in DeQueen, Arkansas. He may be contacted by e-mail at: