Oral health is not just a human concern. Animals need to be able to consume food in order to undergo cellular respiration. Without the ability to eat, animals die. Without a healthy mouth, this could ability could be undermined.
Most herbivores keep their teeth clean by gnawing and chewing on certain objects, like bone or branches. Domestic pets do the same, but often need our assistance.
Then there are of course animals like sharks and gators that have more teeth than they could ever run out of. But did you know there are animals out there with their own ‘dentists’?
The interaction is classified as a service-resource relationship. The white grouper has a mouth full of food debris and parasites. The shrimp literally enter the fish’s mouth and ‘clean’ the teeth by consuming the particles and organisms.
Davide Lopresti, a 33 year old Italian photographer, took breathtaking photos of this relationship in action. The area where he dived he’s described as the “Holy Grail” for underwater photographers.
The white grouper is a patient creature, allowing the shrimp to go about their business. When the grouper has had enough, it makes a slight motion, which signals to the shrimp to stop. The cleaning’s done and they leave.
This kind of ‘dental’ mutualism is fairly unique. Mutualism, however, is very prevalent in nature. Even ‘cleaning’ mutualism is a very common relationship. Cleaner fish consume the dead skin and parasites on bigger fish.
Other service-resource relationships include pollination. The bees receive the food resource: pollen or nectar. They provide the service of pollen dispersal for the flower.
In the vast savannas of Africa, impalas often find themselves infested with ticks. Luckily, they too have their own cleaners. Birds like the red-billed oxpecker pick off the ticks for their meal ticket.
Humans, of course, too have mutual relationships with different species. On a microscopic level, bacteria in our gut help digest certain foods that our digestive system cannot do alone. They provide a service, we the resources.
On a macroscopic level, one only has to look to man’s best friend. The domestication of dogs is an example of service-service/resource mutualism. They perform tasks like helping in herding in exchange for food and protection.
And, the most obvious level of mutualism, is between humans. In a very relevant service-resource relationship, one human provides a resource—money—in exchange for an almost invaluable service—dental treatment.