Fish mucus! Yum! At least that’s what bluestreak cleaner wrasses think. Bluestreak cleaner wrasses are fish that clean other fish. They’re not supposed to eat the tasty mucus that protects their clients from disease, stinging cells and UV rays. They’re supposed to eat the parasites attached to their client’s skin, but sometimes they can’t resist sneaking a nibble of that scrumptious mucus. (And biting a client definitely ranks as one of the dumbest business decisions a little fish could make.) The client, who signed up for something more like a bath than some sort of kinky biting thing, quickly shakes the cleaner off and high tails it outta the cleaning station. And so the client stays dirty and the cleaner stays hungry (despite that bite of delectable mucus).
That’s not how cleaning is supposed to work. It’s supposed to be a simple, mutually- beneficial relationship—big fish pull into a cleaning station where tiny cleaners (like wrasses, gobies and cleaner shrimp) clean them and get a free meal as they eat the client’s dead skin and parasites.
So how’s a cleaner fish with a biting problem gonna find work (and food)? With a little help from a friend, according to scientists from Stockholm University. They found that pairs consisting of one male and one female bluestreak cleaner wrasse provide a much better cleaning service (with much less biting) than a single wrasse. Also, when the wrasses team up, the male seems to be in charge of quality control, chasing the female if she tries to sneak a bite of mucus.
Cleaning stations are so much more than undersea carwashes. They also serve as safe havens for snack-size fish. When predators pull into a cleaning station, the tiny (totally munchable) cleaner fish provide a little extra pampering. As they clean the big fish, they gently caress it with their fins. This massage seems to put the big bad predator in such a state of relaxation that it loses its appetite, keeping the cleaner fish safe—and making the cleaning station an ideal hangout for itty-bitty fish.
What do these cleaner fish have to do with you? Nothing, absolutely nothing, but we can’t talk about fish and pampering without mentioning the garra rufa—the pedicure fish. Garra rufas aren’t exactly cleaner fish. They’re just hungry fish.
Garra rufas, also called the “Doctor Fish of Kangal,” naturally occur in a hot spring near Kangal, Turkey. The waters of the hot spring are too warm to sustain much of anything edible so the toothless fish gobble up whatever they can find—anything from dead human flesh to other garra rufas. That’s right, these fish feast on scabs, blisters and other skin “imperfections,” but locals didn’t notice the healing abilities until the early 1900s when a shepherd’s wounded leg healed after he bathed in the hot spring.
Stories of the healing powers of the fish and the spring grew and in the 1950s the locals built a wall to preserve a captive school in the hot spring. Soon, a resort opened, and today, more than 3,000 people visit the spring each year to allow the Doctor Fish and the high selenium waters of the hot spring to cure their skin ailments.
Now, thanks to globalization and a few gutsy spa owners, you don’t have to go to Turkey to get the garra rufa treatment. A few salons in the United States are now offering fish pedicures where clients dunk their feet in tanks of warm water and let dozens of garra rufas nibble away at their calluses. Some people (including the health departments in Texas and Washington) think it’s gross. Others find it as decadent as a cleaner fish fin massage.