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March 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Should You Let the “Dentists of the Sea” Clean Your Teeth?

from the March, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Some divers who are familiar with the antics of cleaner shrimp, which eat parasites and dead skin off fish, do this party trick underwater -- remove their regulators and encourage these industrious little critters into their own mouths to clean their teeth. Why do shrimp do this for us, and should we let them?

Benjamin Titus, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History, told National Geographic, "Shrimp have very poor vision, which might explain why they don't shy away from human clients." They may just see a diver as a very large client fish.

However, Eleanor Caves, a researcher at Duke University, suggests that by occupying a shrimp's cleaning station, a diver may be scaring off or physically blocking clients that need cleaning. "It's great when people gain a broader understanding of what's actually on a reef, but the best practice for divers, and anyone out enjoying nature, is to leave the animals alone."

From a diver's perspective, the only hazard is that you need to hold your breath while letting the little critter get to work on your teeth. This could be dangerous if you inadvertently start ascending because, as Titus reminds us, "the first rule of diving is 'don't hold your breath,' which can increase your risk of a lung expansion injury."

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