Characterization of the Interactions within Cleaning Stations of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and their Vertebrate Clients

by Erin Collins and Kat Quintanilla

From the Faculty Nominator:

“The Tropical Marine Biology in Honduras ICA literally immerses students in the ecology and behavior of coral reef species. To facilitate this, students choose a fish species or specific interaction, such as a cleaning symbiosis, to research and make observations on while snorkeling or SCUBA diving during a two-week period. This project culminates in a lab report, detailing students’ findings, and how their results compare to those of other studies. To do this assignment well requires hours of careful observations in the field, while being mindful of a whole host of other things, such as maintaining proper depth, keeping up with the group, monitoring the amount of air remaining in one’s SCUBA tank, etc. I’ve taught this course five times and this paper by Erin Collins and Kat Quintanilla is certainly the best I’ve read. Not only is it well-written, but it is carefully researched, and the amount of data presented is impressive for a short-term project. It was my pleasure to nominate this paper for publication in Verge and am so pleased it is included in this issue.”

From the Author:

“The cleaner-client symbiosis between fish and invertebrate species is an intriguing behavioral relationship that has evolved because of the benefits to both parties. Some observations of cleaning stations within tropical reefs have noted that cleaner species are less likely to take advantage of their clients by picking off live tissue when there are other fish around to witness it. Not only this, but fish that observed this behavior dispersed following the event. Because of how fascinating these interactions are, we wanted to test the validity of these observations while in our ICA in Roatán, Honduras. We collected quantitative and qualitative data of the frequency at which “flinching” behavior was observed, suggesting devious behavior by the cleaner, both in and out of the presence with other fish. We also pursued characterizing the orientations at which each species posed in order to request service as well as quantifying what species interacted most frequently. Although we couldn’t make many confident conclusions, our results inspired further potential research into both the health and abundance of the fish species in Roatán. Special thanks to Cynthia Kicklighter and Theresa Hodge for all their guidance in our pursuit.”

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