Reluctant hero? Cleaner fish show it pays to be selfless

Jan 07, 2010
This handout picture provided by the University of Neuchatel (UniNE) and taken in May 2007 shows a couple of cleaner fish operating on a parrotfish. Among some cleaner fish species, it appears that it is the males who are more devious than the females, scientists at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland have found recently.

Putting yourself in the line of fire is shown to reap huge rewards, in a new study published this week in Science.

Researchers from the Zoological Society of London, University of Queensland and the University of Neuchâtel have discovered that male cleaner wrasse are quick to play the hero when their dinner is at stake.

Cleaner wrasse live on and feed on the of larger 'client' . They gain an even bigger meal if they take some of the off the skin of a client, but this cheating behaviour results in a disgruntled customer.

The 'Alan Sugars' of the fish world, male cleaner wrasse prove they're no small fry when it comes to punishing their employees for upsetting clients. Males will aggressively chase females who deliver poor customer service, seemingly protecting the interests of the client when in fact they've got their own stomachs in mind.

Lead author Dr Nichola Raihani from the Zoological Society of London says: "Clients will leave if they are cheated at a cleaning station. That means the male's dinner leaves if the female cheats. By punishing cheating females, the males are not really sticking up for the clients but are making sure that they get a decent meal".

This tendency to stick up for a victim is something that humans are particularly prone to, but no one really knows why we do it. This study raises the possibility that 'Robin Hood' type behaviour might be less charitable than we think.

The next stage of the research will concentrate on the threat posed to male fish by similar sized females who can undergo sex changes and ultimately challenge their authority.

Explore further: Flapping baby birds give clues to origin of flight

More information: ‘Punishers benefit from third-party punishment in fish’, Science, DOI:10.1126/science.1183068

Provided by Zoological Society of London

4.5 /5 (4 votes)

Related Stories

When Being a Cuckold Makes Evolutionary Sense

Oct 09, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Evolutionary biology theory predicts that males usually won't invest a lot of time raising offspring when there is a good chance they are not the fathers. Yale University researchers have ...

Do female guppies risk their lives to avoid sex?

Jun 08, 2006

Sexual harassment is burden that females of many species face, and some may go to extreme lengths to avoid it. In a paper published in The American Naturalist, Dr Darren Croft from the University of Wales, Bangor and a rese ...

The best both of worlds -- how to have sex and survive

Sep 20, 2007

Researchers have discovered that even the gruesome and brutal lifestyle of the Evarcha culicivora, a blood gorging jumping spider indigenous to East Africa, can’t help but be tempted by that ‘big is beautiful’ mantra ...

Females decide whether ambitious males float or flounder

Jan 30, 2008

Aggression, testosterone and nepotism don’t necessarily help one climb the social ladder, but the support of a good female can, according to new research on the social habits of an unusual African species of fish.

Recommended for you

Wolves susceptible to yawn contagion

Aug 27, 2014

Wolves may be susceptible to yawn contagion, according to a study published August 27, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Teresa Romero from The University of Tokyo, Japan, and colleagues.

User comments : 0