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What makes a species central in a cleaning mutualism network?


C. Sazima, Depto de Biologia Animal, CP 6109, Univ. Estadual de Campinas, BR–13083-970 Campinas, São Paulo, Brasil. E-mail:


Mutualisms often form networks of interacting species, characterized by the existence of a central core of species that potentially drive the ecology and the evolution of the whole community. Centrality measures allow quantification of how central or peripheral a species is within a network, thus informing about the role of each species in network organization, dynamics, and stability. In the present study we addressed the question whether the structural position of species in the network (i.e. their topological importance) relates to their ecological traits. We studied interactions between cleaner and client reef fishes to identify central and peripheral species within a mutualistic network, and investigated five ecological correlates. We used three measures to estimate the level of centrality of a species for distinct structural patterns, such as the number of interactions and the structural proximity to other species. Through the use of a principal component analysis (PCA) we observed that the centrality measures were highly correlated (92.5%) in the studied network, which indicates that the same species plays a similar role for the different structural patterns. Three cleaner and ten client species had positive values of centrality, which suggests that these species are modulating ecological and evolutionary dynamics within the network. Higher centralities were related to higher abundances and feeding habits for client fishes, but not for cleaners. The high correlation between centrality measures in the present study is likely related to the nested structure of the cleaning network. The cleaner species’ set, by having central species that are not necessarily the most abundant ones, bears potentially more vulnerable points for network cohesiveness. Additionally, the present study generalizes previous findings for plant–animal mutualisms, as it shows that the structure of marine mutualisms is also related to a complex interplay between abundance and niche-related features.