Yellow watchman goby (Cryptocentrus cinctus) and tiger pistol shrimp (Alpheus bellulus).

Wakatobi’s Odd Couple

Published November 29, 2016 in MARINE LIFE

Blind shrimp and goby; a closer look at one of the ocean’s most interesting partnerships

With thousands of species of fish and invertebrates to discover on the reefs surrounding Wakatobi Resort, divers may find themselves slipping into “checklist mode” as they scan for that next elusive find to photograph or add to the tally. But sometimes, identification and documentation aren’t enough. There are animals and behaviors that deserve a closer—and longer—look. This is certainly the case when you come across one of the most entertaining pairings in the ocean, and you can find these odd couples at many sites around the resort.


The oversized dorsal fin of the magnificent shrimp goby can serve as an advertisement to attract a potential mate, as a visual warning to neighbors of an encroaching threat, or to create an exaggerated sense of this little fish’s size to discourage would-be predators. Photo by Walt Stearns

A mutually-beneficial arrangement

Locate a patch of sand, mud or rubble bottom at one of Wakatobi Resort’s dive sites and there’s a good chance you will run across a small fish hovering above a hole in the sea bed. Look closer and you might also note a pair of slender antenna poking out of the hole, making contact with the little fish’s flank or tail. You have just discovered a shrimp goby and its near-constant crustacean companion, the alpheus shrimp.

Most divers are familiar with the symbiotic relationships formed by anemones and clownfish, in which the fish provides housekeeping services in exchange for protection. A similar and in many ways more entertaining partnership takes place between a variety of snapping shrimp of the genus Alpheus and many species of bottom-dwelling gobies. The short version is that the nearly-blind shrimp relies on the goby as a lookout, while the goby finds shelter in an underground burrow built and maintained by the shrimp. It’s a partnership that’s common across the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans, involving more than 70 species of gobies and dozens of species of shrimp, and the daily behaviors of these little creatures makes for some fabulous fish watching.


Always on the alert, the shrimp goby scans its surroundings for potential danger as its companion shrimp goes about the business of burrow maintenance, all the while maintaining touch contact with its finned lookout. Photo by Doug Richardson

Division of labor

The daily goings on of a shrimp and goby pair are in many ways reminiscent of the classic television series The Odd Couple, in which the fastidious Felix Unger shares an apartment with the slovenly Oscar Madison. In much the same way, Alpheus shrimp devote their waking hours to almost constant house cleaning, while the goby doesn’t lift a fin to help. This effort isn’t obsessive, however, because without this constant cleaning, the hole in the ground they occupy would collapse on itself within a matter of hours. But though the goby isn’t involved in the never-ending task of burrow reconstruction and maintenance, its presence is vital to the shrimp’s safety.


Time to duck and cover. Sensing danger, this yellow prawn goby has just made an abrupt u-turn and is swimming head first for the safety of the burrow. Photo by Song Heming

These keen-eyed little fish remain on high alert for predators, and at the first sign of a threat, will use a flick of the tail to alert its burrow-building companion to go and stay below. If the threat becomes more imminent, the goby will perform a lightening quick u-turn, ducking headfirst into the hole for safety.

Once the goby perceives it to be all-clear it will start to reemerge using its pectoral fins to prop on the edge of the borrow to better scan their surroundings. The shrimp’s return is often more tentative, and patient watchers may see the tip of an antenna work its way slowly up the goby’s body as the shrimp eases its way out of the hole. At times, the goby may actually lead the shrimp short distances from the burrow’s entrance, looking for all the world like a seeing eye dog leading its charge on a walk. When this takes place, both goby and shrimp are likely feeding. Gobies will gulp mouthfuls of sand that are filtered through its gills to extract tiny morsels. Meanwhile, the shrimp roots through the sea floor, using its enlarged front claws to uncover detritus, tiny crustaceans and worms. Some shrimp will also cultivate an algae garden close to the burrow mouth. Such feeding forays are generally conducted in the morning hours, while afternoons are devoted to burrow maintenance.

Yellow watchman goby (Cryptocentrus cinctus) and tiger pistol shrimp (Alpheus bellulus).

A pair of yellow watchman gobies emerge from their underground shelter, each leading a tiger pistol shrimp. Such forays into the open rarely carry the pairs far from the safety of the burrow. Photo by Walt Stearns

Building a better burrow

Alpheus shrimp are incessant diggers. Their enlarged front claws are often used like augers to jab into a patch of sand or mud, then twisted to loosen the sediment. Claws are also deployed to collect and move items such as shell and coral fragments into place. The shrimp’s middle legs, more properly known as chelae and pereipods, do most of the actual digging and movement of sand and other debris. Though they may look like little more than a hole in the sea bed from outside, burrows can actually be quite spacious. and may house more than one shrimp goby pair. Observers have counted as many as a half dozen groups sharing an underground shelter.


Relationships between fish and shrimp aren’t confined to couples. Larger burrows may house groups of gobies and shrimp, and the pairings of individual animals may change over time. Photo by David Gray

The burrows themselves are walled and roofed with fragments of shell, coral and rock that create a fairly permanent structure, while floors are made of softer sand and mud. The tunnels leading to the burrow interior are often constructed a bit more haphazardly, and their outer openings usually collapse inward at night, providing shrimp and goby inhabitants with the equivalent of a locked front door. Next morning, the shrimp will dig its way out to daylight, but may create a new exit in the process. As a result, individual openings may shift about over time, but these new holes will likely lead to the same burrow.

Social networking

Just as humans sometimes do, shrimp/goby pairs tend to create neighborhoods lacking in diversity. If there are several burrows in a given area of seabed, they are likely populated by the same species of goby and shrimp. Of course, this makes sense given the self-imposed restrictions on movement the pairings create. A gentleman goby would have a hard time maintaining a long-distance romance given the constant requirements of his multi-legged roommate. Partnerships are formed soon after shrimp and goby grow beyond the larval stage. It’s not clear who finds whom, but researchers have determined that the goby will identify a likely shrimp by sight, while the shrimp uses its olfactory senses to sniff out a buddy. Once paired up, shrimps and gobies maintain fairly stable relationships, but they will change partners from time to time, and there are also cases where one goby will team up with two shrimp.

Randall's shrimp goby (Amblyeleotris randalli) usually pair up with Alpheus randalli.

A Randal’s shrimp goby cocks a wary eye as an Alphas randalli shrimp churns through sand and rubble in search of a tiny snack. These species are often seen together, and will usually maintain physical contact, as this shrimp is doing with its long right antenna. Photo by Walt Stearns

Because both shrimp and goby spend a good bit of their time underground, marine biologists have encountered some difficulties in the study of these two species reproductive habitats. It is known that goby males will venture forth for at least a short distance from their holes in search of a potential mate, and will compete with other males; the big guys with the most attitude usually get the girls. Once paired, a male mates with only one female at a time. They head back to his place, where she lays up to 20,000 eggs. The courtship may last for several days before she moves out. The progeny are then left in the care of the male, and will hatch within a week. Meanwhile, like other shrimp, the Alpheus leave the child rearing to the females, who will carry a brood of as many as 4000 fertilized eggs. Once these tiny creatures hatch, they will immediately burrow into the protective sea floor, reemerging once large enough to fend for themselves—and begin the search for a goby of their own. Both shrimp and goby will reach sexual maturity within a year, and mortality studies suggest that even those that survive to adulthood usually have a life expectancy of around two years.

Without a doubt, there’s a lot more going on around those little holes in the bottom of the sea than a casual observer might think. And this is just one of many such fascinating stories that await those who take the time for a closer look at the underwater wonders that surround Wakatobi Resort. We hope you will have a chance to meet some of these fascinating creatures for yourself in the near future.

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