Symbiosis and mutualism are continual themes in nature. While we read about these interactions in school, in textbooks, and on TV, it’s a true thrill to see this play out in our aquariums. There are several Cleaner Shrimp and a few Cleaner Gobies that act out this role in the hobby. But few are as desirable as the Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse.
Getting to Know the Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse
There are actually a few species of Cleaner Wrasse besides the Bluestreak, which is the most well known. The Golden or Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides phthirophagus) is likely the second most common and even more beautiful thanks to its yellow, blue, and purple tones. In total there are around half a dozen Cleaner Wrasse species but the Bluestreak is the one you will see most often in stores.
What makes Cleaner Wrasses so unusual is that they act as cleaners their entire lives and are highly specialized to do so. Many fish will act as cleaners when young but usually grow out of that phase. Likely acting as a cleaner minimizes the chances of something eating them; they do the reef a service and in exchange have a higher chance of making it to adulthood.
But Cleaner Wrasses eat mostly small parasites, loose skin, damaged scales, and secretions from their hosts. And they keep the pinstripe cleaner pattern that so many fish seem to recognize as “helpful: don’t eat this one!”
Various animals, from reef fish to sharks, octopi, lobsters, turtles, and even birds, have been found to utilize the services of Cleaner Wrasses. Even divers can visit and have their skin and teeth picked at, free of charge! So why not keep a Cleaner Wrasse in your own tank? Let’s talk about just how to care for one!
- Common Names: (Bluestreak) Cleaner Wrasse
- Scientific Name: Labroides dimidiatus
- Origin: IndoPacific Ocean
- Length: 4 to 5 inches
- Aquarium Size: 90+ gallons
- Temperament: Very Peaceful
- Ease of Care: Difficult
Caring for the Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse
Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasses are unfortunately a more challenging fish to keep and not for beginners. But if you’re up for something difficult then there are few fish more rewarding to succeed with!
At first, you might be surprised that I would recommend such a large tank for such a small fish. And it’s true that the Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse certainly doesn’t have a large bioload that requires it. It is extremely active but why not a smaller tank?
The reason you need to keep them in larger tanks is because of their feeding habits. In nature there is a slow but steady stream of fish looking to have loose scales plucked, teeth flossed, and parasites picked from their gills.
But keeping a Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse in a smaller tank can be stressful for both parties because each fish will quickly be picked clean – and find itself being constantly enticed by the wrasse to hang around and be cleaned. Likewise the wrasse will be denied its favorite food source in these conditions unless you have a ton of sick and unhealthy fish. In which case you shouldn’t be relying on the wrasse to begin with!.
So heavily stocked tanks of 90 gallons or more ensures that the Cleaner Wrasse finds plenty of customers on a daily basis for its attention!
Cleaner Wrasses are found on reefs across the IndoPacific region, from East Africa as far as the Hawaiian Islands! This means that they thrive in a wide range of marine water conditions – just make sure that they are ideal for reef fish!
Your temperatures should be between 72-78℉ with a pH of 8.0-8.4. The specific gravity (salinity) should always fall between 1.020-1.025. Cleaner Wrasses are exclusively wild caught and are often stressed from the rigors of travel. So only introduce a Cleaner Wrasse into a large, well filtered, and fully mature aquarium.
New setups often suffer from new tank syndrome as the biological, mechanical, and chemical filtration components work to balance each other. Until they work in sync to process ammonia and other fish waste, high levels of nitrogenous compounds can build up. This leads to fish deaths, which leads to even more ammonia.
While it’s not super important a sand substrate is preferred by Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasses. Like many wrasse species they will often dive into the sand at night for protection when sleeping. Gravel substrates can easily scratch and scar them when they try this maneuver.
Lastly, Cleaner Wrasses need to be fed quite often (see below). This makes a protein skimmer essential if you’re keeping them in reef conditions. Mature biological filtration also helps in keeping ammonia levels from rising due to uneaten food.
Are Cleaner Wrasses Reef Safe?
All Cleaner Wrasses are entirely reef safe. They not only eat fish parasites but feed exclusively on tiny planktonic invertebrates like brine shrimp and copepods as well. Your corals and other reef organisms won’t be bothered by them.
Cleaner Wrasse Mimics
Cleaner Wrasses are some of the most popular fish on the reef! It’s not surprising that other fish would try to dress like them…But are they actually cleaners or something more sinister in disguise?
False Cleaner Blenny
Another fish that may occasionally show up in the trade is the False Cleaner Blenny (Aspidontus taeniatus). These are mimics that look very similar to the Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse but they have a much more sinister side to them. They will set up shop near actual Cleaner Wrasses and dance in the same enticing fashion.
But occasionally they will decide to tear a chunk of skin or fin from a fish that thinks it’s getting a cleaning! Not all of the time but often (and painfully) enough that adult reef fish eventually learn how to distinguish between the blenny and wrasse. Therefore the Blenny does do some actual cleaning to keep its customers guessing. But it’s not a fish you’d want to keep in your tank!
Wandering Cleaner Wrasse
The Wandering Cleaner Wrasse or Yellowtail Wrasse (Diproctacanthus xanthurus) actually is a cleaner when young. The juveniles have a very similar striped pattern that helps them stand out as they set up cleaning stations for fish.
But as adults they drop their cleaning habits, change colors, and switch to feeding on live corals. Which, if you’re a reef keeper, is a major problem. Wandering Cleaner Wrasses aren’t bad options for aquariums so long as you can get them to eat standard foods, however.
Feeding Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasses
Getting Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasses to feed reliably is unfortunately the hardest part about keeping these iconic fish. Being wild caught they sometimes refuse to eat after the rigors of shipping. And being such tremendously active fish, it doesn’t take long for them to starve to death.
Your best options are to either get your wrasse immediately into your tank when it arrives into the shop or wait for the pet store to wean them onto prepared or fresh foods. Getting the wrasse home ASAP means it will have a chance to begin cleaning your other fish, feeding naturally. Otherwise, the pet store can take its time offering fresh foods like enriched brine shrimp, mysis shrimp, copepods, and fish eggs.
- Delivers the nutritional benefits of raw garlic to...
- Consists of preserved extract of raw garlic with...
- Does not require refrigeration
For picky fish like Cleaner Wrasses, a garlic soak for your food is a great idea because the savory smell makes your fresh or prepared offerings more attractive to them. You can also try pellets small enough for their tiny mouths and flakes.
That said, Cleaner Wrasses get a lot of nutrition from the cleaning that they do for your aquarium fish. It sounds strange but the slime coats of fish are packed with fats, amino acids, and other nutrients your wrasse needs.
Another important thing to consider is that these fish, despite being carnivores, are more like grazers in their eating habits. Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasses need several small feedings per day; a single feeding isn’t enough for them and can lead to a slow death.
Since reef keepers tend to keep a tight hand on what nutrients enter the system and when, a powerful protein skimmer is going to be necessary if you’re going to keep this fish.
Tank Mates for Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasses
Strangely enough, tank mates are mandatory for Cleaner Wrasses due to their feeding habits. And in this case, the more tank mates they have, the better! We want to keep them in well populated tanks with fish large enough to keep them well fed.
This includes the majority of Tangs, Angelfish, Wrasses, and other medium to large sized aquarium fish as well as Clownfish, Damselfish, Dwarf Angelfish, Basslets, and other smaller community fish. Cleaner Wrasses have such a unique appearance that the majority of fish won’t act aggressively towards them. And since most fish recognize a Cleaner Wrasse on sight the wrasse more or less get a “free pass” when it comes to community dynamics.
Adding a Cleaner Wrasse to a tank with predatory fish like moray eels and lionfish should be carefully considered, however. The problem is that by now your fish are likely conditioned to treat anything small that enters the tank as prey. In an aquarium, the communal web that informs predator-prey-symbiotic interactions is not intact.
Some studies have shown that even captive bred groupers will recognize Cleaner Wrasses and avoid eating them. And there is equal anecdotal evidence from aquarists who found that their Cleaner Wrasses ended up being an expensive meal for their predator.
Setting up this relationship in an aquarium is further complicated by the fact that in nature, Cleaner Wrasses set up cleaning stations where other fish visit them. They don’t seek out moray eels in their caves, which is what tends to happen in an aquarium. The eel may respond aggressively if it’s not accustomed to a Cleaner Wrasse visitation.
Your best bet is to introduce both the (well fed) predator and the wrasse simultaneously into a new tank. Once both fish have settled in there is a good chance that the relationship will unfold properly.
Another option is to buy your predatory fish when they are younger and raise them and the Cleaner Wrasse together. This has the greatest chance of success as the predator will learn naturally that the wrasse has much more to offer than another meal.
Lastly, we should also talk about other Cleaner Wrasses. Keeping multiple Cleaner Wrasses can be done in a larger aquarium. These fish often work together on especially large patrons like Groupers and Eels. Typically they form pair bonds or harems where one male will live alongside several females.
This makes keeping multiples problematic because they are impossible for us to tell the sexes apart (non-sexually dimorphic). So unless you’re certain that you have a pair – or are lucky enough to find captive bred juveniles – it’s better to keep an adult Cleaner Wrasse alone.
While there isn’t enough information on Cleaner Wrasses to be sure, many marine fish change sex as they grow up to suit their social status. A dominant fish may be the male or female in a given group, and all of the other fish of the opposite sex. If this is the case for Cleaner Wrasses then a small group of juveniles would be the best option since they will socialize and sort out their sexes as they mature!
Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse Tank Mates:
- All Fish and Invertebrates (with caution towards predators and other Cleaner Wrasses)
Breeding Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasses
Captive breeding efforts have only just begun for Bluestreak and Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasses. A few breeders have started providing juveniles for the hobby, taking pressure off of wild stocks. But the details of their methods have not been released as of yet.
It is known that Cleaner Wrasses are pelagic spawners, like most marine fish. In the evening or early morning they rise into the water column and mate, releasing their eggs into the currents where they form a part of the plankton that wafts about the reef. The young then eat and are eaten by planktonic organisms before falling back to the reef once they grow large enough to found cleaning stations of their own!