Fish Markets: Cooperation and Competition in the Undersea "Economy"

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You probably know that hermit crabs live in shells. What you might not know is that really nice shells to call home are a scarce commodity, and hermit crabs consequently have some pretty cool ways of optimizing the ways they acquire and occupy their shells.

A study of the purple-clawed hermit crabs (Coenobita clypeatus) on an island off the Belizean coast reveals that the crabs fill shells using "vacancy chains"—social structures through which vacancies in certain resources propagate through a population, like the ways humans fill jobs and apartments.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Vacancy Chains

The hermit crabs were observed to use two types of vacancy chain: synchronous and asynchronous. An asynchronous chain is when one crab moves into a new, empty shell and abandons its old one to be found by another crab, which abandons its own for another crab to find, etc. With this type of chain, shell switching is sequential and the crabs experience little to no interference or competition. They have the opportunity to investigate any vacant shells they find and can directly compare their current shell with a new shell by switching back and forth between the two. It's sort of like when you look at apartments that have just been moved out of and are available immediately or in the near future. If you take one of those apartments, someone else can check out and move into yours, someone else will move into theirs, etc., in an orderly fashion.

Synchronous vacancy chains are more social and much more interesting. They start off with "waiters," crabs that hang around a shell that's too big for them, and wait for a bigger crab to come along so that if the big crab moves in to the vacant shell, the waiter can grab their more appropriately-sized hand-me-down shell. (The researchers note that the decision to wait, and how long to wait, based on previous experience, provides some evidence that the crabs are smarter than we thought.)

As a crowd gathers—a crowd always gathers, but no one knows how; the researchers think the waiters may use vocal or chemical signals to draw attention to the vacancy—the crabs queue up by size, from largest to smallest. Once the largest crab switches into the vacant shell, each crab climbs into a new shell as it's vacated by the slightly larger crab ahead of it, quickly shuffling vacancies (literally) down the chain. A similar type of chain happens in college towns across America every fall. Students spend months "lining up" by finding apartments, packing and labeling boxes, and then—BAM!—a few thousand kids move in and out of apartments in one day.

Here's a synchronous chain in action.

The Undersea Service Industry

Moving away from real estate and into the service industry, animals still behave kind of like humans. They partner with other animals that provide the high-quality goods and services, cheat each other, and then threaten to take their business elsewhere in order to get what they want.

"Cleaner fish," which remove dead skin and parasites from other fish in a mutually beneficial relationship (they get a meal, and the other fish get groomed), have been known to make their "clients" wait for service and cheat them by feeding on healthy tissue or mucous instead of parasites. Clients don't have many options for ensuring good service. They can't demand their mucous back or complain to the Better Business Bureau. What they can do is go get cleaned somewhere else.

A study by a University of California, Santa Barbara biologist found that individuals of one type of cleaner fish near French Polynesia, the luestreak cleaner wrasse, have to compete for access to their preferred clients, the ornate butterfly fish. This competition gives clients with easy access to multiple "cleaner stations" - areas where the cleaner fish hang out and do their thing - the ability to get better service from cleaners, who apparently are cued to the fact that their customers can easily take their business elsewhere and are discouraged from cheating them.

This story originally appeared in a different format on Matt's website.

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December 31, 2012 - 9:00am
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