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The Conscientious Marine
Symbiotic Partnership Biotopes for
by Bob Fenner
A fave word and scientific get together for
me is “symposium”; from the Greek to Latin meaning “to drink together”!
A related term is symbiosis,
“together-living”; an ever-engaging field of study detailing the
relationships between biological organisms…
a huge body of endeavors here as you can appreciate, with a few
classification schemes to keep all straight. Think about this; all life
is “symbiotic” with the other living forms about it; getting along and
not… seeking food/s, mates, avoiding predation actively and not.
The description of how one species goes about these behaviors in
relation to the biotic (and non-living) matters around it is the study
Symbiotic relationships are variously classed as “mutualistic” to
parasitic and predaceous, depending on how apparently
beneficial to deleterious the parties are to each other. The eight
species of Remoras (family Echeneidae) serve as good examples
of symbiotic range; some are completely free-living, eating scraps,
feces and possibly parasites off their travel hosts; a few act as
“space parasites”, at times diving into the gill cavities of billfishes
and Jacks they ride, for protection. Just where does or can one
draw the line between mutualism to parasitism here? Parasites are
species that live in or on other species where they derive
nutrition and/or protection.
You’re likely familiar with classical
examples of symbioses: Clownfishes and some anemones, Pistol Shrimps and
bony fishes and parasitic copepods, isopods… Here is my chance to share
some of these possible arrangements for your consideration,
possible display in your captive systems. For presentation sake, let’s
divide these possibilities into “easier” and more “difficult”
The easy ones include set ups that are more facile to arrange and
maintain; and difficult, harder and more tentative.
Easy Symbiotic Relationship Biotopes:
< These can be
one image each, with species shown and a brief write up of how the
relationship works and, briefly, how to re-create it in the home
aquarium. Maybe each one would fill half a page. (Blocks of text, not
a running commentary.)>
Amongst the simplest, easiest and
most enjoyable symbiotic relationship/systems is that of a prawn
gobies and their partner pistol shrimp. There are many such
species pairings in the wild; with the fish/shrimp acting
together to (shrimp) build and maintain the shared burrow, and
the fish acting as vigilant guard. These Alpheid Shrimps have
poor vision, utilizing their long antennae to stay in physical
contact with their Gobiid partner/s.
symbiont set ups can be very simple. A tank of two square feet
bottom area will serve for just these animals alone, with more
space added per other compatible livestock you might want to
house with them. I encourage you to place any rock or other hard
décor directly on the bottom, adding mixed substrate (fine and
some rubble) after… to prevent shifting and potential crushing.
I also like to give these fish and shrimp a “head start” by
providing one or two pre-made burrows for them. My fave approach
here is an open section of ¾” diameter PVC pipe with a 45 degree
elbow attached; with the 45 open to the surface. You’ll find
that these pairings are continuously free-lance, with the
bulldozing shrimp refashioning and moving the burrowing tunnels
as it deems fit. If you can arrange it, do leave a viewing area
underneath the tank/stand so you can periodically check out
what’s going on in the burrow. Don’t be surprised to find fellow
cohabitants here with the shrimp, goby/ies, including
Cleaner gobies and hosts AND sponges
and stony corals! The gaudy little gobies of the genera
Elacatinus and Gobiosoma are comical to watch and serve useful
purpose as cleaners of necrotic tissue and parasites of other
fishes; reducing stress overall. Happily, several of these
brightly marked gobies are captive produced, available all-year
long as aquacultured specimens.
A pico reef
of a handful of gallons will do if all you’re keeping are a few
tropical West Atlantic cleaner gobies; more volume for hosting
their symbionts if stocking, depending on their likely maximum
size/s. Yes; you can/could just keep the gobies by themselves,
best with a Caribbean indigenous coral or sponge species they
enjoy hanging around on.
Hermit Crabs and Boxing Crabs with
Anemones! Real crabs and false, Hermits, Boxers and other crabs
have come to gather and sport sea anemones to ward off would be
predators. This is a mutualistic relationship with the anemones
benefitting also. There’s more food to be had by being walked
about with such messy eaters, and the Crustacean host defends
the anemones in turn against predators.
Anemone Hermit Crab, Dardanus
pedunculatus and the Pom Pom Crab, Lybia tesselata
Balanced Parasite and Fish Hosts!
several prominent external crustacean parasites (not to mention
internal ones, worms…) that occur on marine fishes. Does your
LFS sell wild-caught Clownfishes? Take a look inside their
mouths, you may find an isopod lodged in its throat looking out
at you. Parasites are species that live in or on another species
where they derive food and/or protection.
Yes; the parasite/s on/in your livestock ARE eating
them, contributing to degrees in stress and likelihood of
further health loss… but, successful parasites don’t kill their
hosts (makes sense right?), and such displays can make for great
conversation starters. One must simply be even more diligent in
sustaining stable and optimized conditions to preserve livestock
Depending on the size of your host, your system might
be quite small, a micro to pico reef in the case of gobies and
blennies for instance.
Shown: A Hind, Cephalopholis fulva
and isopod, and Eviota guttata with a parasitic copepod.
Cleaner Shrimps and Fishes!
In the wild, cleaner shrimps set up stations that are
regularly visited by host fishes looking for services for
removing necrotic tissue and parasites. Skin and scuba divers
look for these stations and count on them for bringing
photograph possibilities to the fore.
several species of cleaner shrimps, and most all fishes will beg
for their services. In captivity, you’ll need to have a system
large enough to not only house cleaners and hosts, but room for
them to live together otherwise, as cleaners can become overly
aggressive. I suggest a minimum four foot long tank, bigger if
stocking larger fishes.
More Difficult Symbiotic Relationship
Cleaner Wrasses of the genus
This association is very well studies (I wrote
about it in the 1960s), and encompasses five Wrasse species of
the genus Labroides and most all Indo-Pacific reef and reef
associated fishes; including visiting Manta Rays! Labroides
establish regular cleaning stations where a myriad of customer
fishes come about, visit, turning color, adopting odd spatial
orientation to get the Wrasses attention. Some consider the
color changes merely endocrinological, others that they’re a
mechanism for “showing up” bad body areas, parasites, perhaps
both influences are at work here.
Happily, two species of Labroides, the most common L.
dimidiatus and the near-Hawaiian endemic L. phthirophagus
are aquacultured for hobbyist use. These captive-produced
specimens are FAR more adaptable, likely to live in aquarium
conditions. Ask for them from your dealer.
Labroides themselves are best harbored in as
large a system as practical; a minimum hundred gallons or more.
Larger tanks are the rule in consideration of how many of what
types and sizes of cleaning customer fish you intend to stock.
Labroides can be trained to accept “regular” foods, i.e. they’re
not obligate cleaners, but facultative.
Here a couple of
Labroides dimidiatus are looking over a brightened Goatfish
customer in Mauritius
Clownfishes and their large
Indo-Pacific anemone symbionts are a classic form of mutualistic
symbiosis; and though Clowns will associate with other living
and non-living materials; indeed, captive-produced ones don’t
need a host at all, there is nothing like “Nemo” cavorting in
its anemones tentacles. In the wild, all Clownfish species are
associated with Anemone hosts; the fish receiving protection
from predators, and in turn protecting their anemone; sometimes
even feeding it. In captivity this bond isn’t necessary,
particularly for aquacultured clowns.
choices for suitable anemones are easy here: The Bubble Tip,
Entacmaea quadricolor is the absolute best, with asexually
clones being readily available and even hardier. This Anemone
species is the widest associated in the wild, and can become
acclimated by every Clown species .
For smaller species like Ocellaris and Percula Clowns,
a tank of forty gallons will do for both fish and Bubble-tip.
This species of anemone inhabits rock crevices, so you’ll want
to provide this sort of bommie.
Shown, some “Photon”
clowns and BBT in captivity
Gobiodon Gobies and Acropora!
colorful chubster gobies of the genus Gobiodon are always found
in intimate association with genus Acropora, Staghorn Corals.
These hermatypic (reef-building) corals are great examples of
mutualistic symbioses themselves; sponsoring endosymbiotic
zooxanthellae algae that remove/convert wastes to food and make
oxygen (electron transfer), and calcium carbonate/skeletal
aiding enzymes; removing carbon dioxide while making a home for
themselves may be kept with dead skeletons or facsimiles in
quite small volumes (picos), but housing live Acropora calls for
larger, more easily stable settings like forty plus gallon
systems. If you have no overtly piscivorous fishes you could try
keeping Gobiodon with your “colored sticks” in a large, mixed
reef setting, though some will pick on SPS.
Shown; a Gobiodon
citrinus perched on its Acropora home in the Red Sea.
Commensal Shrimps and Seastars, Sea
Cucumbers, Sea Cucumbers, Crinoids, Sea Whips, Sea Anemones, Stony and
Palaemonidae and Hippolytidae replete with dozens of species of little,
colorful and clear bodied shrimps that live epizootically on Echinoderms
and Cnidarians. These are commensal to mutualistic relationships with
degrees of benefit to the shrimp symbionts and their non-shrimp hosts.
The real task here is finding specimens that are still associated/alive
after the rigors of collection, holding and shipping. If you have the
dive-adventure bug, you’ll find that these are quite common associations
in the wild. When at your LFS, carefully examine their newer arrivals
for shrimps amongst the spiny skinned animals and corals.
conditions are called for in maintaining these animals together; taking
express care to pre-mix new/change-out water and adding any supplements
used there, rather directly into the main/display system.
Shown: Thor amboinensis,
Sexy Shrimp in a beaded anemone in Bali, and
A pair of Periclimenes colemani, Coleman’s Shrimp, atop their
trimmed Asthenosoma varium, Fire Urchin in N. Sulawesi
Symbiotic relationship study is akin to
narrowing down your view of a given species in the world’s bio-web. All
organisms are part of symbioses; as mutualistic, commensal partners of
varying kinds to competitors, predators and prey to different kinds of
parasitic dependency. Putting together these displays and studying,
observing symbiotic interactions is great fun, and more importantly
should serve as clear lessons in the web-interrelated arrangement of all
life on our planet.
Sidebar: Bio 101
Guide to Symbiotic Terms:
De Bary is
credited with originating the term symbiosis, “the living
together” in 1879. This field of study in biology treats with
the relationships of organisms to one another. Here are the
principal terms involved, with simple definitions:
situation where one organism benefits and the other is not
harmed. A fave example is the relationship between remoras and
sharks (and other animals), where the remora gets scrap food and
possibly protection from predators and their “ride” is unharmed.
Mutualism: the condition where two species are associated
where both benefit. For many people this IS the definition of
symbiosis. I think of Clownfishes and their Anemone hosts here;
where both are intimately reliant for protection from predators
by the other.
relationships in which one species of organism gains (food,
space) while another species it lives in or on is harmed. This
condition is further defined as continuous, temporary or
protelean (where only young are dependent on a host).
Tapeworms (Cestodes) come immediately to mind as parasites of
marine (and terrestrial) animals.
Where the relationship occurs entails some arcane
Endoecism: where one animal utilizes the burrow or tube
home of the other for (temporary) shelter. I state an
illustration of endoecism below twixt shrimp/goby symbionts
sharing their tunnels with Bristleworms.
Inquilism is a more intimate sharing of a refuge; a
greater degree of dependence than endoecism. In zoology an
inquiline animal is one that shares such a habitat. A great
exemplification and name is the Fat Innkeeper Worm (Urechis
spp.) that host some temporary fish guests as well as permanent
ones like pea crabs and scale worms.
Epizoism: “upon” and “animal”; where one species lives on
the outside of another; not necessarily parasitic. You will find
a few paradigms of epizoism in this piece; gobies living on the
surface of stony corals, sponges.
Symbiont: the more active partner, focus in a
Host: the more
acted upon partner, focus… depends on your perspective,
Heinrich Anton. 1879. Die Erscheinung der Symbiose