Dependency and interconnectedness are not unexpected qualities in a secluded island nation such as the Maldives. With limited access to resources and a limited area in which to live, bonds form within communities for survival and to facilitate daily life. Some creatures share a stronger bond than others, however, in the marine underworld.
The close and long-term interaction between different species is called symbiosis. These interrelated species generally demonstrate lifelong connections of a physical and biochemical nature. That is, they depend on each other for life sustaining routines. Among the marine life in the Maldives many mutualistic relationships can be seen, in which both organisms benefit from the bond. These displays of interdependence show us just how connected the web of life can be and may even teach us a thing or two about sharing. A great lesson for the kids.
Clown fish for the Symbiotic Photography Prize
Of the most photogenic pairs of symbiotic creatures on the Maldives reef, there is the clown fish and the anemone. The well-known Finding Nemo fish doesn’t stray far from the usually stinging anemone. The fish’s immunity to the anemone sting allows it to nestle within, where it feeds off small invertebrates, effectively protecting the anemone while feeding itself. The anemone also benefits from the nutrients provided to it from the faecal matter of the fish.
At first glance, we don’t see this multifaceted liaison between the pair. Once it’s apparent though, spotting the fish pop in and out of the anemone while diving becomes a more enlightening experience and the cute photos of fish heads poking out of the anemone, like this one, are more meaningful.
An Affair That Sustains the Reef
Of the most important relationships between reef organisms, there is that of coral and algae. Coral is the heart of the reef on which the rest of the creatures depend for shelter and nutrients, while the coral is fed by them as well.
Within the corals themselves there’s an even more dependent relationship between the coral polyps and the algae that live within their cells. The algae have the all-important role of producing energy through photosynthesis. Taking light and converting it into energy is a common process for plants but not all plants so closely support other intertwined forms of life.
The colour of corals also comes from the algae. Coral bleaching, or the process of whitening as coral is on the brink of death, is the result of coral getting rid of dead algae that have not survived a rise in surrounding water temperature. Without these algae coral lose their colour. Coral no longer want to provide a home for algae that are not providing the nutrients they need, it’s a survival method for the coral. If temperatures decrease to hospitable levels for the algae the coral can recover over time.
The Maldives is an example of the recovery that coral can make. The El Nino in 1998 caused mass bleaching in the region with just a 3 degree rise in water temperature but exponential regrowth has been seen. In addition coral breeding and regrowth projects have been initiated to offset human impacts that have slowed the comeback.
Without the coral reef the entire ecosystem is threatened so nurturing the symbiotic relationship between coral polyps and algae is essential.
One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure
Symbiosis in the Maldives is often based on one creature cleaning up after another. Certain types of fish and shrimp have a helpful role cleaning larger fish and rays. There are nutrients in it for the cleaners and health benefits in it for the larger creatures.
The colours and swimming patterns of the cleaners are known to the larger species so they react by stiffening, ready to be cleaned. Manta cleaning stations are an attraction in the Maldives where this process happens on a larger scale. Mantas and two-tone wrasse are seen together, the little fish nibbling on the mantas as they glide by at stations like the Lankan station, Rangali Madivaru, Kudarah Thila and Donkalo Thila, all found in Ari Atoll. There’s also the North Male Manta Point among many other locations to see this symbiotic relationship play out.
There are also blue streak cleaner wrasse that clean other types of fish and clear cleaner shrimp that help coral grouper fish, like in this photo.
These reciprocal relationships, or quid pro quo, show the give and take between organisms - in this case for survival. The Maldives is full of examples of symbiosis. When witnessed these interactions can nudge us to remember how important it is, for us too, to share what we have to benefit others. While what we get in return may not be as immediate or as direct as these symbiotic connections, who knows what the future may hold.