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Cleaner wrasses are of interest to me on a few counts; but especially academic and photo-making. They’ve been favorites of study for me before literally and actually diving into their study off the coast of California as a teenager. One of the three species of Labrids here is the Senorita (Oxyjulis californica); a facultative (non-obligate) cleaner of many important game fishes. Its presence and population have been positively correlated with abundance and health of host fishes; as have the members of the genus in our topic here. Is the positive correlation a matter of advantage for one or the other species, both, or simply chance? Conditions favoring the wrasse and its hosts?
As a content provider for the dive-adventure travel as well as ornamental aquatics genres I’m always looking for “good shots” to sell, mostly “verticals”, portrait format that might sell as covers or for advertisement use. There are no more productive places to find such scenes as at cleaning stations. All one needs is to identify these aquatic barber shops and keep circling about; eventually, most all fish and more come in for a cleaning, including gigantic Manta Rays. There are several erstwhile cleaner organisms, including shrimp and several fish species.
Amongst the five species of cleaner wrasses that make up the genus Labroides, the most commonly occurring in the wild and ornamental aquatics interest is the Bluestreak. Unfortunately, it is also historically the poorest survivor amongst them; but not to despair; there are records of folks successfully husbanding them for months to years. In this brief piece I will share with you the practical biology and impressions concerning what works to keep Labroides wrasses, in particular, L. dimidiatus in captivity.
Distribution et al.:
Habitat: Wild & Captive: Labroides dimidiatus is reef associated. This species is always found in relatively shallow (20-40 foot depths) near substantial reef structure; rock and coral. There, usually as pairs, though may be solitary or in small groupings with younger individuals, they “operate” established cleaning stations. All manner of fishes, singly, in schools… small to VERY large (like Manta rays) happen by for removal of necrotic tissue, and possibly parasites.
Current should be medium to brisk; water quality must be per keeping a proper reef system of size. Due to the need for stable conditions and stocked potential host fishes, Cleaner wrasse systems should be large; at least a hundred plus gallons.
I want to re-emphasize the dismal historical survival of this one species of Labroides and make a plain statement concerning conservation of congeners. NONE are easy to keep; and though L. dimidiatus is quite abundant throughout its wide range; it should not be purchased casually. There ARE far hardier cleaner species; many shrimps and gobies of the genera Gobiosoma and Elacatinus especially; that are suitable for most reef and semi-reef systems.
I have campaigned to restrict the Hawaiian endemic, L. phthirophagus for
commercial use, wondering if its limited presence on Hawaiian reefs was
important in maintaining fish health there. The “verdict is still out”
here, scientific studies asserting and denying this role; however, all
the “other” species of Labroides I’d leave on the world’s reefs rather
than removed for ornamental use. IF you are going to try one, I implore
you to do your best to keep it alive, healthy. Okay, off my soap-box.
Labroides dimidiatus itself is “soft bodied” and due to low price to collector-divers and shipping agencies in turn, they are not handled gently, too often over-crowded, and as usual, not fed through the chain of custody for a week, perhaps two till arriving at your r/e-tailer. Due to mostly this lack of care, a good deal of Bluestreaks are lost prematurely; I’d hazard a guess that more than half don’t make it from the ocean to your dealer; dying enroute. The ones that do survive up to this point are worse for wear as you might imagine; starved, likely net-beat, and STRESSED.
As with shopping for small blennies, gobies, basslets… you need to balance how long the specimen/s you’re considering with awareness that you neither want them to be “too new” or “too old” as in how long they’ve been on hand. Too new is a day or two from arrival at your dealers. Most newly arrived marine organisms that are going to die do so within the first 24 hours of arrival. On the other hand, specimens that have been on hand, and likely not feeding for a week or more are also highly likely to perish. You want to choose amongst those who’ve been about between these times generally; unless you’re incredibly fortunate to be offered ANY specimen that is actually feeding.
The usual “acid test” of whether an animal is feeding or not applies
orders of magnitude more with this Wrasse; so ask that the dealer
proffers various foods and see which, if any are interested.
Tankmates & Order of Introduction:
Cleaner wrasses should only be introduced to fully established systems that lack overly aggressive tankmates, though triggers, big puffers, morays and more will generally recognize cleaner organisms for what they are and eschew inhaling them. You want to have a large enough system, with a good deal of other fishes to provide a “customer base” for your cleaner.
Opinions, observations vary, but genus Labroides wrasses are generally considered obligate rather than facultative cleaners; that is, they “have to” clean to gather sufficient nutrition. Again, in captivity I have witnessed personally, and read several accounts of people who’ve had L. dimidiatus learn to accept other foods; sufficient to not clean at all.
To initially get your specimen/s feeding, I suggest offering a wide mix of live and frozen/defrosted foods as appropriately small pelleted foods. Recent years have proven the palatability of the last; with many fishes taking pellets with gusto.
Ongoing, it’s important to sustain your wrasse with frequent small feedings during lights-on hours. Pellets are easily offered regularly through automated feeders; live food organisms via large refugiums and otherwise hand feedings three times or more per day.
Other Cleaner Wrasses, Labroides:
There are several other known cleaners of the family Labridae; some
purposeful as juveniles like the Hogfishes of the genus Bodianus and Larabicus
1835), the Fourline or Arabian Cleaner Wrasse. The last is rarely seen
in the trade though it is a beauty, it is not aquarium hardy. I should
mention there are other families of fishes that include important
cleaners as well; the angelfishes, family Pomacanthidae and some gobies,
notably the Neon species of the genera Gobiosoma and
Elacatinus. Captive-produced specimens of these goby species are
very useful and hardy for most all tropical aquarium use; whether your
fishes hail from their range in the wild, most all come to recognize
these little cleaners as useful and not food items. (see below)
And of course there are numerous cleaner shrimp species; mostly of the
families Hippolytidae, Palaemonidae and Stenopodidae. The last, the
Boxer Shrimps need to be kept with larger fishes as they themselves
grow, as, like crabs, they are really opportunistic omnivores. Cleaner
shrimp may be consumed by fish tankmates, particularly when they’re
molting or the fishes are hungry; otherwise they make fascinating
additions to systems with reef-like conditions.
The other four species of Labroides are decidedly splashier in color and overall trend to be captive suitable; surviving capture, handling and shipping better and adapting to prepared foods more readily. This being stated, none of the Labroides are easy to secure good specimens, or acclimate to captivity; most dying within a month of purchase; with only a few percent living more than three months.
The Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse is still not an easy species for aquarists, professional or advanced to keep in captivity; the vast majority perishing in transit from collection through distribution, likely more than ninety five percent dying within a month of being installed in their main/display systems. However, there are proven means of improving ones chances. These are identification and selection of initially healthy specimens; acclimation to suitable settings; and provision, training on to prepared foods.
Burgess, Warren E. 1981. The Genus Labroides. Tropical Fish Hobbyist 2/81.
Fenner, Bob. 1990. Cleaning Symbiosis Amongst Fishes. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium 7, 8/90.
Fenner, Robert. 1995. The conscientious marine aquarist, with notes on Cleaner Wrasses. TFH 5/95.
Nelson, Joseph S. 1976. Fishes of the World. Wiley & Sons, N.Y.
Parker, Nancy J. 1973. Cleaner Wrasses. Marine Aquarist 4(3)/73.
Sims, C.A.; Riginos, C.; Blomberg, S.P.; Huelsken,
T.; Drew, J.; Grutter, A.S. 2013. Cleaning up the biogeography of Labroides
phylogenetics and morphometrics. Coral
Reefs. 33: 223–233