Cleaner shrimp are shrimp that approach fish and clean parasites, dead skin and damaged scales from them. The shrimp benefit from this because items cleaned from the fish are their main source of food. Fish benefit from having irritating items removed and potential infections stopped. Several types of shrimp engage in cleaning behavior, but the best known is Lysmata amboinensis, the Pacific cleaner shrimp, and this is the species usually referred to simply as “cleaner shrimp.” Skunk cleaner shrimp and white-banded shrimp are other names for the same species.
The tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region and the Red Sea are the natural habitat of the cleaner shrimp. Except in the larval stage, they live exclusively on reefs. They reach a maximum length of 2 to 2.3 inches long (5 to 6 cm) and are very colorful. A white stripe runs the length of their backs, bordered by two red bands, and they have two white spots on either side of their bodies. Their vivid body markings plus red tail and four long white antenna make it easy for fish that want cleaning to find them.
Fish and the cleaner shrimp interact at cleaning stations, places on the reef where the shrimp can usually be found, so fish know they can find cleaning services there. Although items cleaned from fish are the main source of food for the shrimp, they also scavenge on the reef for other food. The shrimp are very social with their own species and with others and have no fear of the fish they clean. They will even enter a fish’s mouth and gills to clean off interior parasites.
Cleaner shrimp molt about every four to six weeks. As the conditions in their native habitat are very stable, without seasonal light or temperature variations, they spawn year round. At each spawning, a female lays 200 to 500 eggs, which the adults carry on their shells until they hatch five to seven days later. The parents then release the tiny larvae into the ocean currents, where they drift as part of the ocean’s plankton. In five to six months they become adults and find a reef on which to live.
The shrimp live naturally in pairs or groups and as many as 100 have been found living together. They are protandrous hermaphrodites, which means that they begin adult life as males and later become females. Cleaner shrimp are easy to keep in marine aquariums and will clean fish in captivity as well as they do in the wild.