Cleaner shrimp and their reef fish clients are an interspecific mutualistic interaction that is thought to be mediated by signals, and a useful system for studying the dynamics of interspecific signalling. To demonstrate signalling, one must show that purported signals at minimum (a) result in a consistent state change in the receiver and (b) contain reliable information about the sender's intrinsic state or future behaviour. Additionally, signals must be perceptible by receivers. Here, we document fundamental attributes of the signalling system between the cleaner shrimp Ancylomenes pedersoni and its clients. First, we use sequential analysis of in situ behavioural interactions to show that cleaner antenna whipping reliably predicts subsequent cleaning. If shrimp do not signal via antenna whipping, clients triple their likelihood of being cleaned by adopting darker coloration over a matter of seconds, consistent with dark colour change signalling that clients want cleaning. Using experimental manipulations, we found that visual stimuli are sufficient to elicit antenna whipping, and that shrimp are more likely to ‘clean' dark than light visual stimuli. Lastly, we show that antenna whipping and colour change are perceptible when accounting for the intended receiver's visual acuity and spectral sensitivity, which differ markedly between cleaners and clients. Our results show that signalling by both cleaners and clients can initiate and mediate their mutualistic interaction.
Theory suggests that the direct transmission of beneficial endosymbionts (mutualists) from parents to offspring (vertical transmission) in animal hosts is advantageous and evolutionarily stable, yet many host species instead acquire their symbionts from the environment (horizontal acquisition). An outstanding question in marine biology is why some scleractinian corals do not provision their eggs and larvae with the endosymbiotic dinoflagellates that are necessary for a juvenile's ultimate survival. We tested whether the acquisition of photosynthetic endosymbionts (family Symbiodiniaceae) during the planktonic larval stage was advantageous, as is widely assumed, in the ecologically important and threatened Caribbean reef-building coral Orbicella faveolata. Following larval acquisition, similar changes occurred in host energetic lipid use and gene expression regardless of whether their symbionts were photosynthesizing, suggesting the symbionts did not provide the energetic benefit characteristic of the mutualism in adults. Larvae that acquired photosymbionts isolated from conspecific adults on their natal reef exhibited a reduction in swimming, which may interfere with their ability to find suitable settlement substrate, and also a decrease in survival. Larvae exposed to two cultured algal species did not exhibit differences in survival, but decreased their swimming activity in response to one species. We conclude that acquiring photosymbionts during the larval stage confers no advantages and can in fact be disadvantageous to this coral host. The timing of symbiont acquisition appears to be a critical component of a host's life history strategy and overall reproductive fitness, and this timing itself appears to be under selective pressure.