Thanks to the enormous explosion of information, and all kinds of screens to display that information, I seriously doubt that there are many people who do not know what a clown fish is. It is, of course, “Nemo” from the famous movie “Finding Nemo.” The little orange/red fish with the broad white stripes is instantly recognizable by lots of people, and has done a great deal to popularize the fishkeeping hobby, especially with kids.
The Nemo craze also had some drawbacks – like the time I was delivering fish to an excellent store in Rhode Island. I always inspected every bag of my fish, and made sure that the fish room manager was pleased with them. A young woman came over to us, being dragged by her kid who was about 3 or 4. They had a 2 gallon squat glass bowl, and asked us whether this was sufficient to keep two “Nemos” in. I looked away, with a sort of “be careful what you wish for look” while the fish room manager explained the minimum requirements to keep two clown fish.
Captive-bred clownfish are much easier to feed in aquariums because they are already used to eating aquarium foods. Shown is an Amphiprion percula. Photo by Aaron Norman
Who is Nemo?
This may not be as silly a question as it seems, because there are two very closely related fish that most people think of as Nemo. Both are in the genus Amphiprion, with one of them having the species name of ocellaris and the other percula. There is not a lot of difference in terms of how the fish look; if you know what you are looking for you can tell the difference. Both are small (females to 3” or so, males smaller) and they are both orange/red fish with three broad white bands going vertically through the body. One band is behind the head/gill cover, the second band in the middle of the body, and the third where the tail meets the body. The “true” percula clown fish has black borders on the edges of each of the white stripes, while the ocellaris does not have these black borders on the white stripes. Suffice it to say that for most hobbyists who want to keep a couple of Nemos, the ocellaris (captive bred) will do just fine. True hard core fish geeks may want to insist on percula clowns.
Depending on which source you put your trust in, there are as many as 30 different species in the genus Amphiprion. The species you will see most often, besides the Nemos (percula or ocellaris) include the skunk clown fish (A. akallopisos), the tomato clown fish (A. frenatus), and the Sebae clown fish (A. sebae). There also is another clown fish that has its own genus – it is the maroon clown fish (Premnas biaculeatus).
Taking Care of Nemo
Most clown fish are good citizens, and will get along in a marine aquarium without bothering any of the other denizens of the tank; this includes invertebrates, although some of them may not be able to resist a nip at a coral or such. The maroon clown is the only clown fish that can present a major problem. The dominant maroon clown fish will always be a female (more about that later), and usually gets pretty large (up to a very chunky 3” – 4”). A female maroon clown fish can be the poster fish for a nasty customer. For most hobbyists it will be impossible to deal with a maroon clown fish in anything but a very large aquarium, and trying to keep a pair will usually end up with the smaller male on the short end of the stick. Maroon clown fish are gorgeous fish, but you need to be forewarned about their temperament.
All clown fish will do fine on a variety of good quality prepared dry foods, with some frozen or freeze-dried “meatier” foods also offered on a regular basis. Depending on how much space and money you can devote to them, and how tolerant your intimate other is about fish tanks, you can have clown fish in anything from two fish in a 12 gallon tank up to many of them as happy members of a reef community in as big a tank as you can get away with.
“Designer” Clown Fish
More captive-bred clownfish have become available to hobbyists. Shown here is a snowflake ocellaris (Amphiprion ocellaris) which is said to be a fixed strain sold in the United Kingdom. Photo by Aaron Norman
Clown fish will breed fairly easily in a home aquarium, and since we now know what foods the fry need at the different stages of their development it is well within the capabilities of a hobbyist to get them to deliver babies. They breed very much like cichlids, laying large numbers of eggs on a flat surface, with the parents (mostly the male) guarding them. Clown fish often have mutations, or “sports” and a number of these varieties have been developed into true strains by some commercial breeders. There are clown fish that are almost pure white – called usually “snow flake” or some equally creative name – and those with misbarred patterns. One breeder I know has developed a strain of “miniature” clown fish that top out at a little over an inch.
Clown Fish and Anemones
While the image of a group of orange and white clown fish happily living in and around a sea anemone is a lovely one, most clown fish you will see for sale in your local fish store will never have been anywhere close to a sea anemone. They do not need to be. In fact, the anemones most often associated with clown fish are carpet anemones (Stoicactus) and they are much more difficult to maintain than the clown fish. Yes, it is a nice scene of clown fish in their anemone – but it should only be attempted by advanced hobbyists.
Should You Keep a Clownfish?
The commercially aquacultured clown fish (or fish raised by a hobbyist from a single pair) are as close to being “bullet-proof” as anything in the marine side of the hobby can be. They do not need any special food, are very tolerant of water conditions that are less than perfect, and are always colorful and active. Two clown fish will do just fine in an aquarium kit, without a protein skimmer or any other fancy marine equipment. The only catch is that they do require regular partial water changes, and you have to premix the water to make sure it is the right salinity and temperature. Not a big problem, at least to my way of thinking, to keep a couple of “Nemos” in your home. Just spring for a real aquarium – not a glass bowl.