Clownfish Life

This small orange and white-striped fish that likes to shelter away in sea anemones has suddenly become a star fish, star of the new movie Finding Nemo. Just as in the film, clownfish live in coral reefs off the coast of Australia, in Southeast Asia, and the Red Sea.

At first thought, clownfish have strange criteria for picking a home: find a large swaying anemone creature that looks like a flower but is really an animal, make sure its tentacles sting viciously, and make sure there aren't too many other clownfish around. Why would a clownfish wish to sleep in a mass of swaying, clinging, stinging anemone tentacles? Clownfish have found a way not to get stung. Just as Marlin the Clownfish warns his son Nemo to brush against their home anemone, real clownfish brush against their home anemones to get covered in anemone mucus to protect themselves from the stings. From this living arrangement, clownfish are protected from other fish by the anemone's sting. Meanwhile, the movement of the clownfish attracts other fish to the anemone which become targets for the swaying tentacles.

The clownfish in Finding Nemo are bright orange with white stripes. Other types of clownfish can be brown, crimsom or yellow. Sometimes their stripes are black. In the movie, Marlin the Clownfish has three stripes. I wonder if clownfish always have three stripes? Do bigger clownfish individuals have more?

Two Clownfish in their Home Anemone

The photo above was taken by Steve Turek in Malaysia. Divers such as Turek have generously contributed their photos to a photo database maintained by the Coral Reef Alliance. Website developers can use them by citing the source. I highly recommend this site if you need to find a photo of a reef animal.

Clownfish are part of the damselfish family characterized by deep bodies, one dorsal fin (the dorsal fin is on the top back of the fish), and a caudal fin (at the end of the fish) that is usually forked. Clownfish are also known as anemonefish.

Clownfish swim by rowing their pectoral fins (the ones on the sides close to the head) through the water. Other types of fish flap their fins. Since Nemo in the movie has one small pectoral fin, his father worries that he will face difficulties in swimming.


The reason why the director of Finding Nemo Andrew Stanton envisioned Nemo and his father as clownfish relates directly to the theme of the movie: an overprotective father searches for his son after a diver kidnaps the small fish. In the wild, clownfish rarely swim far away from their home anemones. They are the ultimate homebodies. So it takes all of the courage the bright fish can draw upon to go in search of his son.

What about the symbolism of the clownfish name? Are clownfish really funny? In the film, Marlin the Clownfish often fails at telling a joke involving a mollusk and a sea cucumber. He seems exasperated that all of the other sea creatures expect him to be funny. If you meet a clownfish underwater, don't pressure it to tell a joke as all of the creatures pressure Marlin. Clownfish are called clownfish not due to their sense of humor but to the tilting and bobbing way that they swim.

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