5 Cleaner Wrasse Myths

Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) offering some "dental care" to a potato grouper (Epinephelus tukula)

Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) offering some “dental care” to a potato grouper (Epinephelus tukula)

The introduction of Labroides spp. cleaner wrasses to marine aquarium systems is generally ill-advised. Though some hobbyists report success in keeping these obligate cleaners long term, the vast majority of specimens entering the market are doomed to perish prematurely from starvation. Nonetheless, despite their abysmal captive survival rate, people continue to buy these wrasses, likely owing to some persistent misconceptions surrounding them.

Among these myths are:

1. If the wrasse can’t get enough to eat by cleaning, it will learn to accept other foods

First off, there’s no if about it—a cleaner wrasse kept in a home aquarium cannot sustain itself long term by cleaning its tankmates. After all, in your average home system, there are going to be very few clients to service and they likely won’t have much of a parasite load or dead tissue to offer. So, if the wrasse doesn’t learn to recognize aquarium fare as edible, it’s destined to starve. Trouble is, it’s the exception, not the rule, when a specimen learns to accept substitute foods. Even among those that do accept alternative foods, many specimens still waste away and perish.

Bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus)

Bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus)

2. They’re a good natural alternative for treating a marine ich outbreak

Labroides wrasses do pick certain ectoparasites off fish, but Cryptocaryon irritans isn’t one of them. Even if it were, these wrasses couldn’t make any headway against the infective trophont stage of the parasite. At this point in its lifecycle, the ich parasite isn’t clambering over the surface of the fish’s body as one might imagine. Rather, it actually penetrates beneath the skin where it can feed with impunity and cannot be reached by cleaner organisms.

3. They’re immune to marine ich

When introducing a Labroides wrasse to a marine aquarium in hopes of eradicating ich, you’ll likely just end up with another infected fish. Contrary to popular misconception, cleaner wrasses have no special immunity to Cryptocaryon irritans or other diseases.

A goatfish stops by a cleaner station

A goatfish stops by a cleaner station

4. Fish always appreciate a good cleaning

We all enjoy a good massage now and then, but how would you feel if you had a masseuse or masseur chasing you around all day, every day, trying to lay hands on you? More stressed out than relaxed, right? The same applies to cleaner wrasses and their client fish. On the natural coral reefs, fish seek out cleaner services on an as-needed basis, but not so in an aquarium where they’re very literally a captive audience. In this situation, the cleaner’s incessant attention—which is distributed over a relatively small number of specimens that can’t swim away—can become a major source of stress and irritation.

5. Cleaners are always safe around predators

Admittedly, this last myth is an issue only if you attempt to keep a cleaner wrasse and a larger predator together in the same tank, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

After observing a cleaner wrasse attending to a large predatory species, such as a grouper or moray eel, with no harm done, one might be tempted to assume the same truce will hold in captivity. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Again, you have to keep in mind that the cleaner/client relationship in the wild is a temporary one. A predatory fish requiring cleaning services will approach a cleaner organism at a particular station on the reef, signal through body language that it “comes in peace,” allow itself to be cleaned, and then move on. Combine these same two animals on a permanent basis, however, and it’s always possible that the larger species’ predatory instincts will at some point override its usual forbearance.

Hawaiian cleaner wrasse (Labroides phthirophagus)

Hawaiian cleaner wrasse (Labroides phthirophagus)

Photo credit: Simon Gingins, Boris Allard, Eunjae Im, Russell Gilbert

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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.

Comments

  1. I replied to the last episode of “The Cleaner Wrasse”, to further update, my Cleaner Wrasse has been with me going on 3 years now, and eats everything from the parasites on the fish, to frozen foods, to Nori, to pods, and even baby brine… I guess I’ve been lucky… I didn’t buy him to tick anyone off, or make a statement, I honestly bought him because I liked the way that he looked and swam…

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      It’s great to hear the little guy is still going strong! I really do wish the majority of captive specimens would do just as well as yours because they’re such iconic fish!

  2. Excellent article. Finally a debunk in print regarding cleaner wrasses. So much misconceptions out there about that.

  3. hi there just had a look at the article and I have had mine now for 3 years great fish loves nori and reef grazers she’s my wife’s favourite fish I have vids on you tube of her eating she likes to pick away at food v happy little fish

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHXob7cpj08

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      It’s always nice to hear a cleaner-wrasse success story, Michael. Keep doing whatever it is you’re doing!

  4. I have had mine one for 5 years in July had no issues with it eats everything and loves nori

  5. My cleaner wrasse has been with me for 6 months. Doesn’t bother the other fish and only cleans them once or twice a day… He also eats all of the food I offer him. I got him from a fresh delivery and obviously he was not eating at first… But he was very easy to train… Fish eggs, enriched brine with some vitamins, mysis and eventually flake… I think that with the foods available to our hobby today these fish are not very hard to train to live in captivity. I do agree that they are not a solution for Ich but they do have a positive effect on other fish.

  6. Jeff Kurtz says:

    It’s great to hear your specimen is doing well, Roi! Thanks for sharing!

  7. I’ve had 3 of them for around 4 years. They eat chopped vitamin soaked mysis and brine shrimp and black worms. They’re about 4 inches long and not shy.
    Been in the hobby for over 20 years and have a lot of older fish. I’ve had my yellow tang for 17 years, my coral beauty for 15 yrs and my regal tang for 10 yrs I also have 6 leopard wrasses including 2 potters. I’ve always been lucky with my animals even my pitbull is 19 years old

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