Individual recognition has been attributed a crucial role in the evolution of complex social systems such as helping behaviour and cooperation. A classical example for interspecific cooperation is the mutualism between the cleaner fish Labroides dimidiatus and its client reef fish species. For stable cooperation to evolve, it is generally assumed that partners interact repeatedly and remember each other's past behaviour. Repeated interactions may be achieved by site fidelity or individual recognition. However, as some cleaner fish have more than 2,300 interactions per day with various individuals per species and various species of clients, basic assumptions of cooperation theory might be violated in this mutualism. We tested the cleaner L. dimidiatus and its herbivorous client, the surgeon fish Ctenochaetus striatus, for their ability to distinguish between a familiar and an unfamiliar partner in a choice experiment. Under natural conditions, cleaners and clients have to build up their relationship, which is probably costly for both. We therefore predicted that both clients and cleaners should prefer the familiar partner in our choice experiment. We found that cleaners spent significantly more time near the familiar than the unfamiliar clients in the first 2 minutes of the experiment. This indicates the ability for individual recognition in cleaners. In contrast, the client C. striatus showed no significant preference. This could be due to a sampling artefact, possibly due to a lack of sufficient motivation. Alternatively, clients may not need to recognise their cleaners but instead remember the defined territories of L. dimidiatus to achieve repeated interactions with the same individual.
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