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216. A quarrel amongst cleaner shrimps


Two different species of cleaner shrimp quarrel over who gets access to the rich pickings inside a moray eel’s mouth.

When a White-banded Cleaner Shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis) approaches a Yellowmouth Moray Eel (Gymnothorax nudivomer) from the left, the red and white striped shrimp suddenly gets confronted with a Clear Cleaner Shrimp (Urocaridella antonbruunii) coming from the right. Both crustaceans seemingly had the same intention, which clearly wasn't to the bigger White-banded Cleaner Shrimp’s taste. Sharing food? On the same table? No way!

The more impressive and larger White-banded Cleaner Shrimp doesn’t hesitate to chase away the much smaller Clear Cleaner Shrimp. Initially, the smaller of the two shrimps makes a hasty escape, but hunger gets the upper hand and the shrimp hesitates to give it another try. Eventually, the Clear Cleaner Shrimp decides that it is probably safer to leave the scene and search for another to-be-cleaned moray.

A moray’s shelter is usually inhabited by a single pair of White-banded Cleaner Shrimp. The other species of cleaner shrimp in this short underwater video clip, the Clear Cleaner Shrimp, can occur in large numbers. When a multitude of Clear Cleaner Shrimp are present, they are often somewhat of an irritation to the resident moray eels.

I do not have an answer for why the bigger cleaner shrimp chases the smaller one away. However, I can tell that I never saw two different species of cleaner shrimp entering the mouth of a client fish. Does it never occur? Possible. I think it is like in many other cases where a specific creature does not share its food source with another competing species.

Areas where fish gather to get cleaned are called “cleaning stations”. These spots are often inhabited by different types of cleaners; small cleaner fish such as the Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) live in near harmony with cleaner shrimp. But the dens of moray eels are quite different than most typical cleaning stations. The moray eel often lives together with a few cleaner shrimp. This is convenient for the cleaner, the shrimp, and its client, the moray eel. The moray doesn't have to leave its shelter to get dead skin and parasites removed from its body and pieces of food and decay removed from its mouth, and the cleaner shrimp is certain of a constant supply of food. Moray eels do not really visit cleaning stations; they just keep the cleaners in their homes.

The moray eel is not unique in this kind of behaviour. There are other good examples where fish live together with shrimp. Many gobies have a symbiotic relationship with a shrimp, and both individuals share the same burrow. In this partnership, the goby serves as the eyes and lookout for both itself and the nearly blind shrimp. The shrimp returns the favour by keeping their shared burrow in good condition, removing waste and debris. Here, the shrimp does not clean the goby itself; its role is purely domestic housekeeping. These symbiotic relations, where both animals benefit from a partnership, are known as mutualism. It is a very common form of interspecies cooperation in the natural world.


To make the scene more interesting, I added a few sound effects and a matching tune. Although video is a visual medium, sounds and music play a crucial role in the quality of the clip. It also helps to retain the viewer’s attention.

Filming location:

This short underwater videoclip has been filmed in Mauritius 🇲🇺

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