Creature Feature: False Clown Anemonefish

The false clown anemonefish (Amphiprion ocellaris) is just one of several species of anemonefish found in El Nido. It’s called the false clown anemonefish because it looks very similar to the clown anemonefish Amphiprion percula. Their main difference is where they live. You can find the clown anemonefish in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Great Barrier Reef to Vanuatu, while the false clown anemonefish is found in the Andaman Sea to Northwest Australia, Central Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Anemonefish get their name from their partnership with sea anemones. The anemonefish protects the anemone from predators (e.g. butterflyfish) and eats its ectoparasites. In return, the anemonefish is protected by the anemone and gets to eat the anemone’s food scraps.

The partnership between anemonefish and anemone are species-specific. For example, the false clown anemonefish only settles in the anemones Heteractis magnifica, Stichodactyla gigantea, and Stichodactyla mertensii.

Ever wonder why the anemonefish doesn’t get stung by the anemone’s tentacles? The anemonefish gains this protection by gently touching the anemone’s tentacles over a period of several hours to days, until it develops a layer of mucus that’s resistant to the anemone’s stings. This protection is specific to that individual anemone. It the anemonefish goes to another anemone of the same species as its host, it will get stung!

A group of false clown anemonefish living in one anemone. The largest fish is the dominant female, the next largest is her male partner, and the smallest fish is the non-breeding male. (Photo by Banzai Hiroaki via Flickr)

Another interesting thing about anemonefish is how they can change sex. It’s true! All anemonefish are born male. In a group living in one anemone, only the largest male changes sex to become the dominant female. The next largest male becomes her mate, and only they reproduce. The rest of the males hang around and become their lackeys (and potential replacements). If the female dies, her mate changes sex to become the new dominant female, and the next largest male moves up the hierarchy. If “Finding Nemo” happened in real life, first, Mommy Coral would have been larger than Daddy Marlin. Second, Marlin would have changed sex to become the new mommy. Marlin would have become Marlene!

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