Cleaner Fish Make Other Reef Fish Smarter


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

puffer and cleaner fish

By eating parasites that make the pufferfish's life a misery, the cleaner not only makes its client healthier, but smarter as well. Hans Gert Broeder/Shutterstock

If you're having trouble learning, maybe you need to shed some parasites. At least that's the case for coral reef fish, whose parasites interfere with their capacity to learn.

The beautiful waters of the Great Barrier Reef swarm with both internal and external parasites that feast on fish. Cleaner fish have made a niche for themselves, consuming more than 1,000 parasites a day off other grateful fish. In the process, they have established a complex and fascinating symbiosis with these “client” fish.


Fish with access to “cleaner stations”, where cleaners wait for clients, have been shown to grow faster and achieve greater sizes than cleanerless counterparts. In studying the benefits clients receive, Dr Lexa Grutter and Dr Derek Sun of the University of Queensland discovered that being cleaned improved the learning capacity of fish.

“When we're ill, our body shifts energy away from our brain to fight off the illness,” Sun said in a statement.

In Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Grutter, Sun, and their co-authors describe the responses of fish raised on reefs with and without cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) to learning tests, as well as some fish artificially infected with parasites.

In one test of the fishes' learning ability, the authors repeatedly placed food with no smell on one of two plates and observed how easily the fish learned to associate food with that plate. They then investigated whether fish that had learned to associate one plate with food were able to adjust when the food location was swapped. A third test placed an abstract image in front of a food plate, as well as a different image before a non-food plate, and tested the fishes' capacity to learn to associate the correct image with food when the plates' locations were randomly shuffled.


Exposure to parasites didn't produce statistically significant effects on fish scores on the first two tests. However, fish raised on cleanerless reefs performed much worse on the last test, as did previously cleaned fish deliberately infected with parasites in the lab.

Grutter told IFLScience she thought this was because it was a harder test, which the fish couldn't manage when their bodies were busy fighting off parasites. Even internal parasites were higher without cleaners, as the immune system of the fish had to fight on two fronts at once.

These heavily infected fish came from reefs deliberately cleared of cleaners for research purposes, but Grutter told IFLScience cleaner wrasse are popular in the aquarium trade. Since they seldom thrive in tanks, this has affected cleaner numbers in the wild, suggesting there could be a lot of clients out there struggling to learn.

Humans may not be immune. Children in developing tropical regions are often infected, and some aid workers regard parasite removal as one of the best ways to improve educational performance.

A cleaner wrasse boosting the intelligence of a rabbitfish. Simon Gingins


  • tag
  • parasites,

  • cleanerfish,

  • animal learning,

  • reef ecosystems