Kinematics of prey capture during biting
Although divers had noted that cleaners continually “pick” ectoparasites from the bodies of their clients, little was known about how cleaners actually capture prey.
Because cleaners often scurry around the body of their clientele, capturing clear, slow-motion footage of cleaning was tricky. During the course of my PhD research, I came up with a way to train cleaners to feed in the lab. This enabled me to use high-speed (1000 frames/sec) videography to observe how the jaws move in cleaner fishes (and closely-related non-cleaners!).
Patterns of prey capture across cleaners: similar kinematic trends despite morphological diversity
Across species, cleaning can be performed facultatively or obligately. We asked whether species in the Labridae that vary in ecological specialization employ similar mechanisms of prey capture. In investigating feeding on attached prey among juveniles of 19 species of wrasses, we found that patterns of biting in wrasses are influenced by the interaction between two jaw bones: the maxilla and a feature of the premaxilla which we termed the maxillary crest (Baliga et al. 2017).
Despite the morphological and kinematic peculiarities of the Labrichthyine clade, we found the evolution of cleaning to be associated with faster and lower-displacement biting.
Cranial morphology and prey capture kinematics: a focal study of three wrasse species
This was my foray into documenting the kinematic profiles of cleaners. Through high-speed videography of cleaner fishes feeding in two experimental treatments, we document prey capture kinematic profiles for Labroides dimidiatus, Larabicus quadrilineatus, and Thalassoma lutescens (Baliga and Mehta, 2015).
Cleaners showed extreme characteristics in jaw movement; unlike other wrasses, cleaners used rapid, low-mobility, cyclical biting behaviors to nibble on selectively-targeted items.