The New England Aquarium is home to cleaner animals, builder animals, and groomer animals that work around the clock to keep tanks healthy!

Labor Day is a time to celebrate the hard work and achievements that American workers have made, and represents the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. But what about the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our marine ecosystems?

Here at the Aquarium, many animals work together to contribute to the prosperity of each gallery. Whether they are building homes, cleaning algae from tanks, or grooming larger fish, their daily work plays a big role in the marine community.

Jawfish on the Job

Native to coral reefs and the Caribbean Sea, yellowhead jawfish (Opistognathus aurifrons) use their large mouths to dig out sand and build burrows. These burrowing fish put a lot of hard work into maintaining their underground abodes, and rarely venture far from home. Males can be especially territorial, chasing away other fish who try to intrude. At night, the jawfish may cover their burrows with rocks to protect themselves from predators. Then it’s back to work the next morning on maintaining their tiny tunnels!

You can see these burrowers at work in the Yawkey Coral Reef Center.

yellowheaded jawfish

Neon Goby Grooming

neon goby

While neon gobies (Elacatinus oceanops) are tiny fish, they have a big job! When the fish were introduced into the Giant Ocean Tank, aquarists hoped that these little guys would settle down and create a cleaning station for some of the larger fish. Since then, clients of the gobies include the green moray eel and red grouper. The larger fish present themselves, and the little gobies go to work munching on parasites and dead skin.

So the gobies don’t become another fish’s snack, Aquarium divers provided the stacked PVC pipe apartment building in case the little fish need to seek shelter.

Shrimp Spa

Banded coral shrimp (Stenopus hispidus) are scavengers of the sea with a diet consisting of worms, algae, and…those annoying parasites that the neighboring grouper has been carrying around for days. That’s right, these shrimp, widely known as cleaner shrimp, may feed on the parasites and dead skin of other fish.

These symbiotic relationships between cleaner animals and their larger clients benefit both species as one gets a meal and the other gets a five-star spa treatment!

cleaner shrimp in blue hole exhibit

Spotfins Make Spotless Tanks

Spotfin butterflyfish

The spotfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon ocellatus) is another species of cleaners that remove parasites from the water and clean other fish. They can be found in the adult shark tank in our Science of Sharks Exhibit. 

See if you can spot them in this video of a shark feeding. These sharks are messy eaters, so it’s a good thing they have cleaner fish to tidy up after dinner!

Human Helpers

We love our fish, but the most important laborers in the Aquarium are the people! To ensure that our animals have the cleanest and healthiest homes possible, we do a LOT of work to remove all waste from exhibits. Different filter systems take out any ammonia waste products, but some jobs require a bit more elbow grease. Aquarium staff scrub penguin guano off the rocks with a veterinary disinfectant every day to keep the fishy smell at bay. Some exhibits, such as our harbor seals and Marine Mammal Center, have the bottoms vacuumed of any remains of a squid and fish lunch. Sifting through sand and siphoning up the buried debris works for other exhibits.

An Aquarium staff member works on an exhibit during the VIP Sunday Morning event in January 2018.
An Aquarium staff member cleans one of the penguin rocks during the VIP Sunday Morning event in January 2018.
diver cleaning seadragon exhibit
An Aquarium staff member cleans an exhibit during the VIP Sunday Morning event in January 2018.

While all of this cleaning, building, and grooming is a daily chore, it is an important part of life at the Aquarium to maintain healthy ecosystems. We thank all of the laborers, fish and human, who work hard to protect the blue planet!