Clownfish: The Colorful and Curious Creatures of the Coral Reefs

| Updated: July 13, 2023
Huge school of clownfish hosting multiple anemones

What comes to your mind when you hear the word clownfish? If you are like most people, you probably think of Nemo, the adorable and adventurous fish from the movie Finding Nemo. But did you know that clownfish are also amazing animals in real life? Their unique features, behaviors, and relationships make them stand out among other fish. In this article, you will discover some of the secrets of clownfish, such as how they live, what they eat, how they reproduce, and how they survive in the wild. You will also learn some tips on how to keep clownfish as pets if you are interested in having these colorful and curious creatures in your home.

What are Clownfish?

Clownfish are a type of small fish that belong to the same family as damselfish, which includes about 370 species. Clownfish are also called anemonefish because they have a special bond with sea anemones, which are animals that look like plants but have stinging tentacles. Clownfish are found in warm waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, in reefs or lagoons that are protected from strong waves.

There are at least 30 different species of clownfish, each with its own colors and patterns. Some of the most common ones are:

  • The ocellaris clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris), also known as the false percula clownfish or the common clown fish. This is the species that Nemo belongs to in the movie. It has a bright orange body with three white bands and black edges.
  • The percula clownfish (Amphiprion percula), also known as the true percula clownfish or the clown anemonefish. This species looks very similar to the ocellaris clownfish, but has thicker black edges and smaller white bands.
  • The clarkii clownfish (Amphiprion clarkii), also known as the Clark’s anemonefish or the yellowtail clownfish. This species has a dark brown or black body, two or three white bands, and a yellow tail.

Species Overview

Scientific Name
Amphiprion Sp.
Common Names
Clownfish, Anemone fish
Indian and Pacific Oceans
Adult Size
2 to 3 inches average, (6+ for some species)
Life Expectancy
4 to 6 years in captivity
Minimum Tank Size
10 Gallons
Captive Breedable

How do Clownfish and Sea Anemones Help Each Other?

One of the most remarkable things about clownfish is their relationship with sea anemones. They live together in a way that benefits both of them. This is called a symbiotic relationship. In this case, the clownfish and the sea anemone provide protection and food for each other.

Sea anemones are carnivorous animals that have hundreds of tentacles that can inject venom into their prey. However, clownfish have a special adaptation that allows them to live among the tentacles without getting stung. They have a layer of mucus on their skin that protects them from the anemone’s poison. Before moving into an anemone, a clownfish will do a dance with it, gently touching its tentacles with different parts of its body until it is used to its host.

Benefits for the Clownfish

By living in an anemone, a clownfish gets several benefits. First, it gets a safe home from predators that cannot handle the anemone’s sting. Second, it gets food from the anemone’s leftovers. Third, it gets a place to lay its eggs under the anemone’s care.

Benefits for the Anemone

The sea anemone also gets something out of having a clownfish as a roommate as well. First, it gets nutrients from the clownfish’s waste products, such as poop and pee. Second, it gets protection from predators or parasites that may try to eat or harm it. The clownfish will chase away any intruders that come near the anemone, such as butterflyfish or crabs. Third, it gets more food chances from the clownfish’s activities. The clownfish may attract other fish into the anemone’s reach with its bright colors and movements or may bring food to the anemone that it cannot catch by itself.

Can Clownfish Host Any Anemone?

Not all kinds of clownfish and sea anemones can live together. Only 10 kinds of anemones can host clownfish, and each kind of clownfish has a preference for certain kinds of anemones. For example, the ocellaris clownfish can live in 10 different kinds of anemones, while the percula clownfish can only live in 4 kinds. If a clownfish tries to enter the wrong anemone, it will get stung and kicked out.

Do Clownfish Host Other Animals?

If you’ve ever had a reef aquarium with clownfish you’ll know that it can be extremely difficult to get your clownfish to host an anemone. Many a reefer has given up their “holy grail” like quest to have a hosting clownfish.

To take it a step further, it often seems like clownfish will host just about anything else in the tank, like torch corals, feather dusters, hammer corals, and elegance corals, just to name a few.

There are some tips and tricks to coax your clownfish into hosting the anemone you bought specifically for it. We will get into a more in-depth guide in a later article but a couple of options are:

  • Tape pictures of clownfish hosting anemones on the outside of the aquarium facing in. (not joking)
  • Put the anemone and clownfish in a breeder box for a while and let them get used to each other.
  • Add bigger, more aggressive fish. Not anything that will eat the clownfish, of course, but just enough to make the clownfish feel like it wants the anemone’s protection.

That last one sounds cruel and I don’t mean for it to be; I would never advise putting a captive fish in harm’s way. But it is a sound technique and seems to uphold my belief that the main reason clownfish don’t host anemones in aquariums easily is simply because they don’t need to.

What do Clownfish Eat?

Clownfish are not picky eaters. They eat both plants and animals. In the wild, they eat various small creatures and algae that live in or near their host anemone. Their food includes tiny animals like copepods, zooplankton, worms, crustaceans, and mollusks. They also eat some of the food that the anemone leaves behind after eating.

In a tank, clownfish can be fed a variety of food, such as fish pellets, flakes, frozen or live foods, and fresh or dried algae. They should be fed once or twice a day, depending on how big and active they are. They should not be given too much food, as this can cause health problems and dirty the water.

How do Clownfish Reproduce?

Clownfish are loyal animals, which means they mate with only one partner for life. They live in groups of two to six fish in one anemone. The group is made up of a bossy female, a smaller male mate, and several young males. The female is the biggest fish in the group, and the males are ranked by size. If the female dies or leaves, the biggest male will change its sex and become the new female, and the second biggest male will become the new mate. This process is called sequential hermaphroditism.

They breed all year round but more often during the warmer months. The mating pair will do a courtship dance that involves swimming around each other, nipping at each other’s fins, and cleaning a spot at the anemone’s base or a nearby rock to lay their eggs.

The female will lay hundreds or thousands of eggs in a row on the spot, and the male will fertilize them with his sperm. The eggs are orange in color and have a sticky coating that helps them stick to the surface. The parents will watch over and care for the eggs until they hatch, which takes about 6 to 10 days, depending on the water temperature. They will fan the eggs with their fins to give them oxygen and remove dirt, and they will chase away any predators that may try to eat them.

The baby clownfish, called larvae, will come out of the eggs at night and swim into the open water. They will drift with the currents for several weeks, eating plankton and avoiding predators. During this stage, they are very weak and many of them do not make it. When they are ready to settle down, they will look for an anemone to call home. They will use their nose to find an anemone that matches their kind. They will then do the dance with the anemone and join or start a group with other clownfish.

How do Clownfish Survive in the Wild?

Clownfish face many dangers in their natural habitat, such as predators, parasites, diseases, pollution, habitat loss, and overfishing. However, they have some tricks to cope with these challenges and increase their chances of survival.

Their primary and most well-known trick is their relationship with sea anemones. As we have seen earlier, this relationship gives them shelter, food, and breeding sites. The anemone’s tentacles scare off most predators from attacking the clownfish. Some of the predators that can eat clownfish include bigger fish such as groupers, snappers, eels, sharks, and rays.

Another trick is their coloration and patterning. Clownfish have bright colors and contrasting bands that help them talk to each other and warn potential predators of their link with anemones. Some kinds of clownfish can also change their colors depending on how they feel or where they are. For example, the clarkii clownfish can darken its body when it is stressed or threatened.

A third trick is their social behavior. Clownfish live in groups that help them defend their home and resources from outsiders. They also work together to care for their eggs and young. They have a complex communication system that involves sounds, gestures, and body language. They can make different types of sounds by shaking their swim bladders or grinding their teeth. These sounds can mean things like anger, fear, alarm, or love.

Designer Clownfish?

Maybe you’ve heard the term “designer clownfish” before; maybe you haven’t. But if you are looking for a more unique and eye-catching clownfish than the common ones, you might be interested in designer clownfish. Designer clownfish are clownfish that have been bred to have specific color patterns and markings that are different from their wild counterparts. They are usually a bit more expensive than regular clownfish, but many people think they are worth the extra cost. These fish can make a great addition to any aquarium and provide enjoyable hours.

There are many types of designer clownfish, each with its own name and appearance. Some of the most popular ones are:

  • The Picasso clownfish (Amphiprion percula), also known as the crazy clownfish or the platinum clownfish. This fish has irregular white markings that look like splashes of paint on its orange body.
  • The Snowflake clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris), also known as the fancy clownfish or the extreme snowflake clownfish. This fish has white markings that look like snowflakes or stars on its orange body.
  • The DaVinci clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris), also known as the Stormtrooper clownfish or the Gladiator clownfish. This fish has white markings that look like stripes or patches on its orange body.
  • The Misbar clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris or Amphiprion percula), also known as the broken stripe clownfish or the mis-striped clownfish. This fish has incomplete or missing white bands on its body.
  • The Longfin clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris or Amphiprion percula), also known as the lyretail clownfish or the longtail clownfish. This fish has longer and more flowing fins than normal clownfish.

To give you an idea of what a few designer clowns look like here are some pictures:

  • Left: Snowflake Clownfish
  • Top Right: Black Storm Clownfish
  • Bottom Right: Picasso Clownfish

How are Designer Clownfish Created?

Designer clownfish are the result of selective breeding by professionals and hobbyists who want to create new and interesting variations of clownfish. Selective breeding is the process of choosing and mating individuals with desirable traits to produce offspring with those traits.

Some of the designer types were first found in nature by chance as random mutations in otherwise normal broods of fish. Mutations are changes in the genes that affect the appearance or function of an organism. These mutations only affect the appearance and not the health of the clownfish. Because the fish are healthy, these mutations can then be passed on to future generations through breeding.

Some other patterns, such as misbars or longfins, may be caused by environmental factors such as overcrowding or poor water quality. These factors may stress the fish and affect their development. However, this has not been proven for sure, and we don’t know exactly what causes some designs, such as misbars.

Caring for a Designer Clownfish

Designer clownfish require the exact same care as any other clownfish. They are hardy and easy to keep as long as you provide them with the right conditions and food.

Final Thoughts

Clownfish are amazing animals that have charmed many people with their colorful look and curious personality. They are also important parts of the coral reef ecosystem that add to its diversity and health. By learning more about clownfish, we can admire their beauty and value more.

If you want to keep clownfish as pets, you should do some research on how to set up and maintain a saltwater aquarium that can provide the best conditions for your clownfish. You should also choose the right kind and number of clownfish and anemones for your tank and learn how to properly feed and care for them. Clownfish can be wonderful pets if you are willing to spend some time and money on their well-being.

We hope you enjoyed this article about clownfish and learned something new. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. Thank you for reading!

Shane Elliot Author Image
Shane Elliot

Shane Elliot is a pet lover and a coral enthusiast. He has been keeping saltwater aquariums for over ten years and enjoys sharing his knowledge and expertise with other hobbyists. He writes about coral care, fish compatibility, aquarium equipment, and more. He also covers topics related to other animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and reptiles. Shane works as a freelance writer and editor when his menagerie of pets allows it.

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