World’s Tiniest Janitor-Cleaner Shrimp
by Lydia Weltmann
Ever wonder how a fish takes a bath? They’re already under water, so how would they soap up and shower? What kind of conditioner would a minnow lather over their scales? Or, since they’re always in the water, are fish just always taking a bath? And how do they keep their reefs looking so clean? Do they have a broom made of a seaweed, sweeping up the sand that gets on the coral?
The Life of a Cleaner Shrimp
The Pacific Cleaner Shrimp is found in the coral reefs around Hawaii, but there are also other breeds of cleaner shrimp found all around the tropics of the world. Some of their other names are Common Cleaner and Scarlet Skunk Cleaner Shrimp. They lay eggs 200-500 at a time, and then they keep the eggs on their finlets for about a week until they hatch. Once they hatch, the shrimp exist as planctonic larvae, living on the reefs and soaking in whatever nutrients the currents bring them. After 5-6 months, the larvae evolve into the helpful shrimp we know and love. At full maturity, they are only 5 or 6 centimeters. Most shrimp are also born as males, but as they grow older their bodies produce less male hormones and they become females after a few molts. Typically, they molt every 3 to 8 weeks.
For the most part, Cleaner Shrimp are red and white. Their underbellies are creamy, but their dorsal fin is white, and there are two white spots on either side of the tail. Two red stripes race across the sides of their bodies, reaching from their main antenna to their tails.
These little guys are omnivorous, eating whatever parasites or dead tissue they can get hold of. Most of the time they do this by cleaning larger fish, but they also clean their environment, picking up and consuming what detritus they can. If it fits in the shrimp’s mouth, it’s fair game. Shrimp are also keen to jump in another fish’s mouth and act as a living toothbrush. And they come back out of those mouths! (Most of the time, anyway. The Snowflake Eel has been known to chomp down when they get tired of the shrimp picking at it.)
Other fish value the services of the shrimp very highly. In fact, cleaner shrimp are in such demand that they set up their own cleaning stations on the reefs and the fish come to them. These shrimp have all their meals delivered to them, without even ordering! Now that’s the way to live.
These guys clean their homes and their friends. If you put them in a tank, they’ll clean that too! They’re actually fairly important to the cleanliness of aquariums, as they’re cleaning habits help the filtration of the tanks. They feed themselves, they keep the tank clean, what more could you want from a little shrimp? Hopefully though, any cleaner shrimp you add to a tank aren’t trying to help Nemo find his way back to the ocean