Human-made noise is contributing increasingly to ocean soundscapes. Its physical, physiological and behavioural effects on marine organisms are potentially widespread, but our understanding remains largely limited to intraspecific impacts. Here, we examine how motorboats affect an interspecific cleaning mutualism critical for coral reef fish health, abundance and diversity. We conducted in situ observations of cleaning interactions between bluestreak cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus) and their fish clients before, during and after repeated, standardised approaches with motorboats. Cleaners inspected clients for longer and were significantly less cooperative during exposure to boat noise, and while motorboat disturbance appeared to have little effect on client behaviour, as evidenced by consistency of visit rates, clientele composition, and use of cleaning incitation signals, clients did not retaliate as expected (i.e., by chasing) in response to increased cheating by cleaners. Our results are consistent with the idea of cognitive impairments due to distraction by both parties. Alternatively, cleaners might be taking advantage of distracted clients to reduce their service quality. To more fully understand the importance of these findings for conservation and management, further studies should elucidate whether the efficacy of ectoparasite removal by cleaners is affected and explore the potential for habituation to boat noise in busy areas.
- Cleaner fish
- Anthropogenic noise