Client preferences by Caribbean cleaning gobies: food, safety or something else?


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Abstract

Predation risk is amongst the most pervasive selective pressures influencing behaviour and animals have been repeatedly shown to trade-off foraging success for safety. We examined the nature of this trade-off in cleaning symbioses amongst Caribbean coral reef fishes. We predicted that cleaning gobies (Elacatinus evelynae and Elacatinus prochilos) should prefer fish clients that pose a low risk of predation (e.g. herbivores) over clients that may have more ectoparasites but pose a higher risk (e.g. piscivores). Our field observations revealed that cleaners did clean preferentially client species with more parasites but predatory and non-predatory clients had similar ectoparasite loads. Despite the lack of a foraging advantage for inspecting predators, cleaners did not avoid risky clients. On the contrary, a larger proportion of visiting predators than non-predators was inspected, gobies initiated more interactions with predatory clients, and predators were attended to immediately upon arrival at cleaning stations. This preferential treatment of dangerous clients may allow the rapid identification of cleaners as non-prey item or may be due to the effect of predators on the rest of the cleaners' clientele, which avoided cleaning stations whilst predators were present. Dealing with potentially risky clients may allow gobies to regain access to their main food source: non-predatory clients.

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