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Anemonefish - Adorable Clowns of the Sea

Text and photographs by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari


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Manta Ray and Anthias picture
Spine-cheek anemonefish, Premnas biaculeatus, Pulau Lankayan, Sulu Sea, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia Image #: 123505

We all know and love clownfish, it’s a fact. Also known as anemonefish – a name which suits them rather better as we shall see – these small and colorful reef denizens belong to the very important and large Family of Pomacentridae , which numbers a grand total of more than 300 species and which they share with other very common, shallow-water fish such as damselfishes. Counting more than ten different species in SE Asian waters, clownfish are widely regarded as adorable if a little pesky camera subjects and easily approachable (if presumably rather unwilling) aquarium subjects. In fact, they’re so pretty it’s easy loving them to death (or to near extinction) as it almost happened a few years back when the worldwide commercial success of the Disney/Pixar animated movie Finding Nemo prompted hundreds of thousands of kids to beg for one – with the dire results than as many were cyanide- or net-fished out of the sea only to end up down toilet drains when the little brats and their unknowing parents found out that caring for them is not really as easy as expected (yes, they need salt water! Yes, they are tropical! Yes – they are living creatures, not computer-generated cartoons!).

In nature they’re well known for being symbionts – that is, they live in relative harmony together with another completely different marine organism, with both of them getting mutual benefits from the relationship. In their case, the other organism is quite unique – the deadly venomous sea anemone, a beautiful and often gaudily colorful living carpet of toxic tentacles rising from a velvety, fleshy foot, closely related both to corals and to jellyfish. Every single sticky tentacle of this soft-bodied creature is quite capable of injecting a deadly dose of toxins in the body of the unfortunate fish touching it (that’s how anemones get their food by the way) through a number of microscopic “needles” shooting on contact – never touch one, but if you do, remember at all costs not to touch your lips or eyes with your hand without having previously and thoroughly washed it! Any creature living in the cuddly embrace of such a terrifying host would be quite safe from hungry predators – so how do clownfish avoid getting paralyzed and eaten by the anemone? Well, it seems they just trick it in believing they’re part of itself – gradually and daily wriggling among its tentacles with great care since they’re very young, they absorb its “surface identity” in the layer of mucus which covers their bodies: simply put, the toxic tentacles of the anemone do not react anymore to the touch of the clownfish, since they do not recognize it as a potential prey item. Strip a clownfish of its protective layer of mucus (urgh, that sounds nasty) and presto!, our little cunning fellow is going to be instantaneously paralyzed and eaten by the anemone like any other fish. No wonder the little pugnacious clownfish will rise up to an approaching diver’s face, nibbling ferociously at noses, ears and probing fingers, bravely defending their turf at the slightest suggestion of encroachment! And yes – as funny as it may sound, being nibbled by an angry clownfish defending its “investment” can occasionally startle you – it doesn’t hurt, but it’s definitely felt, even through gloved hands. On the other hand, we understand how clownfish profit by their lifelong association with anemones, but it’s not really always clear what sort of advantage the anemone itself gets from its little hosts. It is true that they will strenuously defend it from intruders, but that would seem more a defense of their own territory than of the anemone itself, and anyway such a noxious creature is perfectly capable of defending itself (you can see hundreds of anemones on a reef without a single clownfish in them, and yet they’re all perfectly healthy). And clownfish are not the only ones to take advantage of the anemones’ toxicity, as the frequent presence of porcelain crabs and several species of shrimp on their mantle can readily attest. In any case, the technicolored show offered by a family of little clownfish comically wriggling inside a colorful anemone is just too typical of a reef scene to be ignored. They’re commonly encountered in shallow, well-lit areas of the reef, often on coral rubble stretches subject to strong currents – exactly in the spots which would offer their almost completely static anemone hosts the best feeding opportunities. So next time you go diving look for them – and be enchanted by the clowns of corals!

Which And Where

Most species are gaudily dressed in yellow, orange or red, with variable amounts of enamel-white banding on the body. Look for the most common species – the Western Clown, Amphiprion ocellaris (yes – that’s Nemo in person!), the Pink Anemonefish, Amphiprion perideraion, the Eastern Skunk Anemonefish, Amphiprion sandaracinos, and the Bridled Anemonefish, Amphiprion frenatus, in our general area. Those diving in the Andaman Sea will observe the Tomato Anemonefish, Amphiprion ephippium, while divers in the Maldives will meet instead the Black-footed Anemonefish, Amphiprion nigripes. These all share the same kind of brightly-lit, sunny, shallow environment, while the Panda Anemonefish Amphiprion polymnus is a bit larger and will be more easily found in silty coastal areas. Another very common clownfish is the chunkier wine-red Spine-cheek Anemonefish, Premnas biaculeatus, belonging to a different genus and exclusively observed in association with “lightbulb” sea anemones, Entacmaea quadricolor.

Photo Tips

As for clownfish being good camera subjects, that’s open to debate. They certainly look great but we find them quite obnoxious and generally hysterical, since they never stop swimming to and from for a second, and trying to get a good snapshot of one is not the simplest of toils. In fact, one (very good and field tested) theory suggests to pre-focus where you’d like them most to be on their anemone’s mantle – and then click when they enter it by pure chance. Sooner or later it must happen! Seriously, this is one of those cases where the scales lean heavily in favor of digital technology – getting a very good shot of a frenzied clownfish usually needs a lot more than the measly and precious thirty-six opportunities available in a roll of film.