Behavioral Ecology of Cleaning Interactions
Credit: F Gradyan

Cleaning interactions, in which a small ‘cleaner’ organism removes and often consumes material from a larger ‘client,’ are some of the most enigmatic and intriguing of interspecies interactions. Studies of cleaning interactions have primarily focused on marine systems, where cleaners are small fishes or shrimp that live at “cleaning stations” and remove material such as ectoparasites from clients, which are usually larger fish. However, cleaning is widespread both taxonomically and geographically--organisms as diverse as crustaceans, insects, birds, fishes, mammals, and reptiles can all serve as cleaners, while cephalopods, reptiles, mammals, and fish have been recorded acting as clients.

Research in the Caves lab focuses primarily on cleaner shrimp and client fish, but we also study other cleaning systems (such as mongooses that clean warthogs in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park). We are particularly interested in understanding:

  • the behavioral and ecological dynamics of cleaning interactions
  • how cleaners and clients learn mutualistic behaviors
  • how the outcome of an individual cleaning interaction depends on the ecological, behavioral, and social context.

Areas of Interest

  • The ecology of cleaner shrimp-client fish interactions:
    • How do cleaning stations structure the movements of reef fish?
    • How do cleaner shrimp populations fluctuate seasonally, and in relation to ecological variables?
    • How long do individual cleaning stations persist, and how are new cleaning stations founded?
    • What are the long-term ecological impacts of cleaning by shrimp?
    • How might climate change impact cleaner-client interactions?
  • Incorporating field and lab experiments to investigate how individual clients learn mutualistic behaviors
  • Studying the broader ecological, behavioral, and social contexts of cleaning interactions to determine under what conditions the outcome of a given cleaning interaction is mutualistic
  • Comparative studies of related, sympatric cleaners, facultative cleaners, and non-cleaners
  • Extending studies of the behavioral ecology of cleaning interactions to additional (non-tropical marine) systems, such as:
    • Facultative cleaning by fishes in California's kelp forests
    • The cleaning behavior of mongooses on warthogs in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park


Relevant Publications

EM Caves. The behavioural ecology of marine cleaning mutualisms. 2021. Biological Reviews. doi: 10.1111/brv.12770

EM Caves*, C Chen*, and S Johnsen. 2019. The cleaner shrimp Lysmata amboinensis adjusts its behavior toward predatory versus non-predatory clients. Biology Letters: 15, 20190534

EM Caves, PA Green, and S Johnsen. 2018. Mutual visual signalling between the cleaner shrimp Ancylomenes pedersoni and its client fish. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285: 20180800


Affiliated Researchers

Assistant Professor
Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology
Vision, behavioral ecology, animal behavior, evolution; visual perception in animals; signaling behavior, form, and perception.