Clowns in My Aquariums
by Bob Goemans
First printed in TFH, August 2006
Clownfish belong in the Order Perciformes as members of the Family Pomacentridae (Damselfish) where they are placed into the Subfamily Amphiprioninae (Anemonefish). They hail from the Central and Western Pacific and Indo-Pacific Oceans, including the Red Sea, and are among the more colorful, hardy, small, mostly peaceful, and generally inexpensive marine fish. In the wild, most are usually found closely associated with anemones, where they form a commensal relationship.
There are 28 species of Anemonefish with the Maroon female Clownfish Premnas biaculeatus being the largest at 6.5 inches (17 cm) and Amphiprion thiellei the smallest at 3.5 inches (9 cm). Most are found along protected coastal reefs, generally in shallow waters and usually in small groups near their favorite anemones. Their natural diets consist mainly of zooplankton, and are easily maintained in aquariums since they accept a wide variety of foodstuffs. Most prefer a temperature range of 77 – 82°F (25 – 27ºC).
Family members fall into six groups called ‘Complexes.’ The Percula Complex consists of A. percula and A. ocellaris. The Tomato Complex consists of A. ephippium, A. frenatus, A. mccullochi, A. melanopus, and A. rubrocinctus. The Skunk Complex consists of A. akallopisos, A. leucokranos, A. nigripes, A. perideraion, A. sandaracinos, and A. thiellei. The Clarkii Complex consists of A. akindynos, A. allardi, A. bicinctus, A. clarkii, A. chagosensis, A. chrysogaster, A. chrysopterus, A. fuscocaudatus, A. latifasciatus, A. omanensis, and A. tricinctus. The Saddleback Complex consists of A. latezonatus, A. polymnus, and A. sebae. And finally, the Maroon Complex with its single member, Premnas biaculeatus.
Color patterns between juveniles and sub-adults of the same species are often similar. A. melanopus and A. frenatus juveniles are almost identical. Other species, such as A. akindynos, A. clarkii and A. chrysopterus also have similar sub-adult patterns. Yet, A. percula and A. ocellaris juveniles and sub-adults are very similar to their adult color patterns. Most all other anemonefish have vast differences between growth stages. It should be noted some aquarists find it difficult to tell the difference between A. percula and A. ocellaris because both look quite similar. However, A. percula has more distinct black borders on its white vertical stripes and a slightly higher dorsal fin. Recently, species with highly increased black areas are appearing and are quite attractive.
It’s also worth mention that its usually advantageous to place ‘all’ clownfish into the aquarium at one time, i.e., not one this month and another the following month. The first group of clownfish into the aquarium will head straight for their favorite anemone, if available, and soon make it or a particular area in the aquarium their home. Any clownfish added at a later date may be chased away by its present inhabitants, or be severely injured in a territory dispute, even if there’s not an anemone to squabble over. And even though it’s not necessary to have their favorite anemone available, it does tend to be much less stressful for anemonefish if one is present. Besides, its also quite interesting and entertaining to watch their behavior when associated with an anemone!
Those that I have personally maintained are numerous, and honestly I can’t remember all the species that I’ve had over the past thirty years. But lets begin with some of my favorites, and two that has almost become a must in many of my aquariums, as they are my wife’s favorites.
Without a doubt, the Ocellaris or False Percula, Amphiprion ocellaris, and Percula, A. percula are our favorites and we have probably kept these species in at least seven or eight different aquariums (maybe more) over the past few decades. These are somewhat small fish, i.e., 2.5 to 3 inches (6 – 7.5 cm) and fall into the Percula Complex as mentioned above. Ocellaris specimens can slightly vary in the main body color from either a tangerine orange to that of yellow and are sometimes confused with the Percula species, which have slightly wider black bans bordering their white vertical three white bars. Perculas also vary in main body coloration, with variations of orange to recently, areas containing far more black than in the original species.
Females are normally about a third larger than males, as in all clownfish species. And if a female dies, a male becomes the dominant female, possibly within a very short period of time, e.g., one month. (Disney got that wrong in Finding Nemo!) I should note that the Ocellaris and some other species were troublesome in maintaining many years ago when only wild caught specimens were available. However, this is one of those species, as are some of the other clown species, including A. percula, that is quite easy to breed in captivity, and its now captive-bred specimens are plentiful and far easier to maintain. In fact, both Ocellaris and Perculas are the most popular of all 28 anemonefish species.
Since both of these fish are poor swimmers, as are most clownfish, they need a secure area they can call ‘home’ so they will feel secure in their over-all surroundings and experience less stress. Large shells, various forms of soft corals, and anemones are the best choices. In fact, once they find a secure place, they will rarely venture far from it. Two juveniles of the same species placed in the same aquarium will usually mature into a mated pair. I have often seen in my aquariums where no anemone was available, these fish would pester large-polyped stony or soft corals, greatly irritating them, e.g., Flowerpot corals (Goniopora spp.), Elegance Coral (Catalaphyllia jardinei) and Euphyllia spp., such as Frogspawn, Anchor or Hammer corals.
Their nutritional requirements are easily met, as the more common aquarium foodstuffs, e.g., frozen and live brine shrimp, mysis, various meaty diced fish and shrimp flesh, and flake containing Spirulina make it easy to keep them happy and healthy. Their host anemones in the aquarium appear to be Entacmaea quadricolor (Bubble Tip/Rose anemone), Heteractis crispa (Leather/Sebae anemone), H. magnifica (Ritteri/Magnificent anemone), Stichodactyla gigantea (Giant Carpet anemone), S. haddoni (Saddle Carpet anemone), and S. mertensii (Merten’s carpet anemone).
I’ve also had A. clarkii (Clark’s Clownfish) that a friend gave me when he moved to another state. I’ve always recommended this species as a good beginners fish as its very hardy and easy to maintain and tolerates poor water quality. And since I always admired it in his aquarium, he wanted me to have it as a going away present for all my help with his aquarium. I placed it in a 120-gallon invertebrate tank where it made itself at home near, and occasionally in, a very pretty specimen of Euphyllia divisa, often annoying the heck out of that coral. Otherwise, this fully grown single specimen, about 5 inches (10 cm), was a good tankmate and accepted the same foodstuffs the other fish in the system ate, e.g., frozen and live brine shrimp, various meaty diced fish and shrimp flesh, and Spirulina flake. Its noteworthy here to mention that this species be either maintained singly, or in a mated pair, as adults will fight among themselves. If feasible, their preferable host anemones are Cryptodendrum adhaesivum (Sticky Carpet/Pizza anemone), Entacmaea quadricolor, Heteractis aurora (Beaded anemone), H. crispa, H. magnifica, H. malu (Hawaiian/White Sand anemone), Macrodactyla doreensis (Long Tentacle anemone), Stichodactyla gigantea, S. haddoni, and S. mertensii, with Entacmaea quadricolor and H. magnifica being the easiest to maintain in aquaria.
The Red Saddleback Anemonefish, A. ephippium, is another that I have tried with great success. Maybe ‘almost great success’ would be a better way to put it. Even though the pair I purchased was quite small, about two inches (5 cm), they bullied other small fish in the aquarium. And as they grew to full size, about 4 inches (10 cm), it didn’t get any better. Yet, since this 60-gallon tank with many hiding places only had five other fish, with only a couple being smaller than these clownfish, it was not enough of a problem to take them out. But be forewarned, even though they are hardy and colorful, they can stress smaller tankmates. And since the original pair probably became a mated pair (acted like it), they did not argue among themselves. They were easy to feed, and not behind the door so to speak when it came to feeding time, as they were always right there to get their share of mysis shrimp, brine shrimp, various meaty diced fish and shrimp flesh, and Spirulina flake. But keep in mind, it also needs to be maintained singly or in a mated pair, as adults will fight among themselves. And even though very hardy, it should be realized these fish are ‘very’ sensitive to copper treatments, therefore special treatment requirements exist for this species (contact me if that interests you). Their preferable anemone host is Entacmaea quadricolor. However, Heteractis crispa is another possibility, but more difficult to maintain than Entacmaea quadricolor.
Another favorite was A. perideraion, the Pink Skunk Clownfish. One of my clients mail ordered a dozen of them and then decided his 175 gallon aquarium was ‘too’ crowded and offered 4 of them to me. I couldn’t resist, and added them to my 320-gallon reef system. They actually made a nice addition to this system and two, probably a male a female, chose their area while the other two had separate areas. Their diet was no different than mentioned above for the other clowns that I’ve kept. The unfortunate thing about this system was that I unknowingly brought back an octopus, O. bimaculatus, when I brought back from Mexico its central 80-pound live rock! As the aquarium aged, I would find small piles of empty Turban snail shells here and there. When there was a shortage of snails, small fish began missing. It wasn’t until about six months passed that I finally saw the octopus one evening and realized where all my small fish and snails were going! By that time I had lost three of the clownfish, along with numerous other small gobies, blennies and some wrasses. Getting that octopus out of the aquarium is another story for another time, but it ended the missing animal problem. While the Pink Skunks were in the aquarium, they made good tankmates, but would have not been so compatible in a much smaller tank, e.g., 60 gallons. It is often said they stress other smaller tankmates, especially in the smaller tanks. Therefore, they should be among the first fish to be added to the tank unless it’s a quite large. And note they in turn are easily intimidated by rambunctious tankmates. Their preferable anemone hosts are Heteractis crispa, H. magnifica, Macrodactyla doreensis, and Stichodactyla gigantea.
In the genus Amphiprion I’ve also kept A. chrysopterus (Orange-finned Clownfish), A. frenatus (Tomato Clownfish), A. melanopus (Red & Black Clownfish) and possibly a few others over the past thirty years. All have been a joy to maintain and gave me many hours of personal relaxation when watching their individual behavior.
I have also on numerous occasions kept Maroons/Spinecheeks, Premnas biaculeatus, in several different style aquariums. And whether in a fish-only or reef system, they were always very capable of taking care of themselves and the territory they called their own. The female reaches a length about 6.5 inches (16 cm), and the male about 3 inches (8 cm). In fact, they are the largest and most aggressive of anemonefish and should either be kept singly or in mated pairs. And note they are quite aggressive towards other anemonefishes, and any tankmates that encroach into ‘their’ areas. They accept a wide variety of foodstuffs, such as mentioned above.
In fact, there are two Maroon Anemonefish strains, a yellow-striped, and a white-striped version. The yellow-striped version hails Sumatra, and may simply be a geographical variation with a more deep red/chocolate brown color with wide yellow stripes. The brilliant red/orange version has thin white stripes. It is reported (Wilkerson, 1998) that the white striped variety is more aggressive. Their host anemone in the wild and the aquarium is Entacmaea quadricolor, and a good second choice is Macrodactyla doreensis, however, a fairly deep bed of sand is needed to accommodate this anemone. I’ve kept both strains, and each was quite easy to maintain.
If anemonefish are in your plans, it’s better to attain most of them as juveniles, as there is a greater chance they will more easily adapt to available foodstuffs and the aquarium environment without stressing themselves or other tankmates. And if the choice is to include an anemone, the bulb-tipped Entacmaea quadricolor is among the easiest to maintain and most widely accepted. Furthermore, Atlantic Ocean anemones, such as Condylactis spp. do not make good hosting partners for most clownfish, however, I’ve occasionally seen Maroons or Clarkii trying to get comfortable in them. But this is an unnatural association, as clownfish are not found in Atlantic waters, nor are their natural host anemones.
If anemonefish are in your aquarium or future goals, I highly recommend reading “Field Guide to Anemonefishes and their Host Anemones” by Daphne G. Fautin and Gerald R. Allen, and/or ‘Clownfishes, A Guide to Their Captive Care, Breeding & Natural History by Joyce D. Wilkerson. A review of Joyce’s work can be seen on my website (www.saltcorner.com) on my Reviews page.