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What is a Clown Fish?

By S. Mithra
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The darting and playful clown fish are probably the most recognizable tropical fish with their orange and white stripes. Almost never separated from its host anemone, the clown fish participates in the famous symbiotic relationship where each protects and benefits the other. The small fish love warm waters and active coral reefs where they are sure to find an anemone and plenty of food.

Clown fish, also called anemonefish and damselfish, are found across the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Red Sea. They inhabit reefs off the coasts of Australia, Borneo, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Ideally, Amphiprioninae prefer temperatures of 70-80° F (21-27°C). They'll grow to 2-4" (5-10 cm) long when healthy. Humans pose the largest predatory threat, as they collect the appealing fish for sale as aquarium pets.

Although there are many species, most clown fish have the distinctive markings of two or three white stripes against a background of orange, red, or yellow. Their two dorsal fins, two bottom fins, and two pectoral fins are fringed with a deep black, velvety edge.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the clown fish is its symbiotic relationship with an anemone. Anemones are creatures somewhere between a plant and an animal that's attached to a rock or sandy ground. Its stinging tentacles paralyze fish swimming by, and a central stomach digests them. The clown fish, immune to the poison, keeps close to the tentacles to eat the leftover fish pieces and clean the anemone. In turn, the anemone's toxic reputation keeps predators away from the clown fish.

No one knows exactly why an anemone's poison doesn't affect the clown fish. The fish can cover itself with thin mucus that might insulate it from the full force of the toxic chemicals. It also might individually adjust itself to its host anemone by allowing itself to be stung with gradually increasing intensity until it has developed a personal immunity. This might account for the quick, whipping dance it does amongst the forest of brightly colored tentacles.

Another fascinating aspect of the clown fish is its ability to switch sex within the community's hierarchy. At the top of the mating hierarchy is the reproducing female. Underneath her is the lead male, who mates with her, and a bunch of other non-mating males. If the female dies, her absence disrupts the hierarchy. Therefore, the lead male will morph into a female, and her mate will be chosen from among the other males, thus restoring order.

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Discussion Comments
By honeybees — On Dec 19, 2011

My brother has always kept all different kinds of fish and aquariums. He has both saltwater and freshwater fish, and has the correct supplies to handle the type of fish he keeps.

This is something that started with his first goldfish, and has grown from there. He does a good job of keeping his tanks clean, providing the right kind of food and making sure his tanks are big enough.

For someone like him who is used to working with several different kind of fish, I see no problem with them having a clown fish.

I don't think you want want to start out with something like a clown fish as your very first aquarium pet though.

By julies — On Dec 18, 2011

I find it interesting that humans are the largest threat to clown fish because of wanting them for aquarium pets.

Whenever I think of a clown fish, the first thing that comes to mind is the Finding Nemo movie.

I wonder how many kids wanted a clown fish after seeing this movie? I can see this as having a similar effect as kids wanting a Dalmatian puppy after watching 101 Dalmations.

Just like a Dalmatian is not always the best kind of puppy for kids, I can see how having a clown fish would be a much bigger undertaking than what you would initially think.

By popcorn — On Dec 18, 2011

I am considering adding a maroon clown fish to my collection and while I have seen clown fish pictures that showed them living alongside other fish I am wondering which ones are best for them to share a tank with?

I have a large salt water tank with a reef setup but am willing to add a second tank to my collection if it will make the clown fish happier. I love the idea of having such a fun fish in my home, so while I know it may be expensive, I can set up a new environment for them if need be. At a minimum I will provide them with a 30 gallon tank.

By Mae82 — On Dec 17, 2011

@lonelygod - I ended up purchasing clown fish after seeing them in the Disney movie Finding Nemo. They are gorgeous but a lot harder to care for than most people think. Firstly, as far as buying clown fish goes you can only have one of them or you need to get ones that are mated. Clown fish are very territorial and will fight.

They need a perfect salt water tank to survive in which can get expensive but as far as food goes they can live off things like flakes, thawed food, tablets and live plant matter. The clown fish requires a lot of time and care so make sure you really find one you want and are serious about caring for it.

By lonelygod — On Dec 17, 2011

Does anyone know if it is tough to take care of the clown fish species?

I recently went to an aquarium and fell in love with the tomato clown fish due to their lovely coloring. I am now thinking about investing in a new salt water tank just so I can take care of some of these gorgeous fish. I am also curious if it is tough to provide for the clown fish diet or if you need anything special for a clown fish tank. I know at the aquarium they were just mixed in with a ton of other tropical fish in an exhibit.

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