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Retailing Clown Anemonefishes

Bob Fenner

Amphiprion leukocranos

Observing a member of the Clown or Anemonefishes, subfamily Amphiprionae, in the damselfishes family (Pomacentridae), cavorting amongst the tentacles of a host anemone, can be quite rewarding for both retailers and hobbyists.

Prized for their bold and bright color patterns, comical behavior, and ability to thrive in captivity, there is much disinformation regarding the selection, care and merchandising of clown-anemone fishes. This article attempts to present straight-forward information on how to be successful with the damsels we call clowns.


Is still a jumble. There are about twenty six valid species, all but one in the genus and sub-genus Amphiprion; with one member in the sub-genus Premnas. These are further lumpable into four "complexes". Unfortunately for aquarists, Anemonefishes are very frequently mis-identified in our trade/hobby, but share the same four or five common names. Notable species, grouped by similar appearances include:

1) Multiple-striped orange to tan to brown clowns: Amphiprion ocellaris, variously sold as "Percula" clowns from whom they can usually be distinguished by the presence of thick black bordering on the white bars of the "true" perculas, .A. Percula. Other similarly marked species include A. clarkii, A. bicinctus, A. chrysopterus and the rare A. sebae ("C-bay"), more often than not a mis-identified clarkii clown. Oh yes, and the tear-shaped, saddle-back clown, A. polymnus.

Other brown to cinnamon, sebae-like clown species are not as widely available but just as suitable aquarium additions.

2) "Skunk Clowns", aptly named for their striped markings. A. perideraion, A. akallopisos, A. sandaracinos. & A. nigripes.

3) "Tomato Clowns"; A. frenatus (most common), A. melanopus, A. rubrocinctus, A. ephippium, A.calliops, A. mccullochi.

4) The reddish "Maroon Clown" A. (Premnas) biaculeatus.

For a workable key to species see Allen, 1974 or 1979

Most authors group Anemonefishes as a subfamily, Amphipionae of the damselfish family, Pomacentridae (see the installment, Damselfishes; Saltwater Bread & Butter). They differ from the damsels in having fewer dorsal spines and structural markings on the margins of some of the head bones and other even more obscure minor tendencies and differences. 

Oh yes; and one other salient characteristic: their mutualistic symbiotic relations with certain species of anemones. This is an obligate (absolutely necessary) arrangement in the wild; they are never found without anemones. Without their protection and shelter, Clownfishes are quickly consumed.


Anemonefishes are found throughout the Western Indo-Pacific. Most are collected from the Philippines. None are found in Hawaii.


Of Clownfishes should be a breeze and a pleasure. In the wild they are abundant and easy to capture. All are found in intimate contact with certain species of sea anemones and are easily netted off their "homes" using two fine-meshed hand nets.

Sadly, many Clownfishes meet an early end through rough handling, transport and difficulties in general acclimation. There are estimates of some ninety percent mortality en route from capture to distributors and of those remaining, another nine tenths perishing before even reaching the retailer's tanks.

Why? Another cyanide scapegoat? No, in a word, stress.

Being rudely pulled from the "loving arms" of your anemone host maybe instead of something sounding like "an enemy" we should call them "an ally"), losing the advantage of "cleaning" by your anemone and interaction with members of your species and possibly family, take their toll.

Add to this, chemical and physical insults of polluted holding-water, gill and body "burn" from ammonia build-up in a tiny shipping bag and the trauma of co-mingling with strange and exotic species in a distant clear-sided container and it's a wonder many survive.

So, what can you do? Be a good (= informed & conscientious) retailer! Buy and offer good stock as usual.

First of all, buy tank-bred and raised stock if possible. Percula (ocellaris), Sebae (clarkii) and Tomato (mostly frenatus) clowns are produced in commercial numbers. These may be initially smaller and less-colorful than wild-caught specimens; but they do live.

Aquarium-conditioned specimens, tank-raised or not, should be well-fleshed, especially around the back, alert, feeding with no whitish marks on their bodies of fins. If the fish offered are lethargic, hanging out in the corner with drooping, clamped fins, not feeding or have whitish markings....DO NOT BUY THEM! Pick and choose only the best specimens; once in poor condition survival is not good.


Juveniles to sub-adults adapt much better to captive conditions. One to three inch specimens live and sell best.

Buying for Breeding:

 Suggest to your customers that they do as they would for cichlids. Stock purchased for breeding should be as for most species; they should buy and raise a group of smaller-than-mature individuals and allow them to pair off. Several species can be sexed externally when large enough, as the females are much heavier-bodied and/or differently colored. For a discussion on structural and color differences and sex-changing (!) see Hoff 1984.


Like many organisms living in close association with invertebrates, Anemonefishes are sensitive to similar chemical and physical conditions. In fact, it's better to keep them in and sell them out of your invert system.

Acclimating/cleansing dips should be used and be of short duration. Use freshwater with very little or no formalin, copper, malachite, et al.. A dip, not an extended bath. System temperatures should be in the mid to high seventies. (F.) with specific gravities of about 1.023. High water quality, especially keeping low levels of metabolites (proteins, albumen, phenols, nitrogenous compounds, etc.) are advised. Either suitable bio-filtration, &/or granulated activated carbon (GAC), &/or ozone &/or frequent partial water changes are the rule.


Anemonefishes can be overly territorial, in particular where any threat to their host anemone is concerned. It is suggested that they be introduced with their host anemone after other fish tankmates, or provided with their own system.

Clownfish and anemones are very easily sold together. If your clown fish are very large and you want to try adding new specimens; disturbing/re-arranging the physical environment, extra-feeding and a watchful eye for problems are advised. Most other species of fishes are left alone as long as they are previously established, larger and more aggressive, and do not bother the clown fish's anemone. Anemonefish can and will attack you and draw blood if so inclined.

Large non-paired adults generally do fight in all but the largest aquaria. Likewise, mixing species should be avoided. Keep them in separate systems.

To reiterate; aggression can be intense amongst and between species of Anemonefishes. They lock jaws and "bite" each other cichlid-like. To reduce agonistic behavior, provide adequate size quarters, a number of anemones, be leery of mixing sizes and sexes and restrict your selection per tank!. Breeder pairs of some species are kept in ten to twenty gallon systems commercially; yours should be much larger. Aggression will be lowered and the fishes will show and sell better.

Symbiosis with Anemones:

Do they really need an anemone? No, none of them; all have been kept and a few species spawned sans coelenterate; but some species do better then other's in an anemone's absence. A. melanopus, A. frenatus and A. biaculeatus are our top three for toughing it out without their "pals". However, chances of keeping and breeding Anemonefishes in captivity is greatly improved in the presence of host anemones.

The mutually beneficial behavior of clowns and anemones has been well documented and popularized (see Thomas 1978), as has methods of selecting healthy symbiotic anemones. We'd like to reinforce a few points:

If possible to go to the wholesale sources, buy anemones of known symbiotic potential; i.e. ones that are displayed with symbiotic clowns, and if possible, buy them with the symbiotic fishes desired. This will help draw customers and sell them as units rather than individuals.

Many species of anemones are unsuitable. Your clownfish may not easily, chemically/physically introduce/communicate/consort with their intended host's). They may even (gasp!) be consumed by them!

Some Anemonefish species and individuals of larger sizes do well without anemones, though it has been speculated that they play an important role in removing external parasites besides providing shelter and protection from predators.


Has been a hot topic & covered well elsewhere (Goldstein 1982, Young 1984, Branowski 1985, Lindner 1986). Suffice it here to write that Anemonefishes breed a lot like substrate-spawning neo-tropical cichlids; by cleaning a rocky smooth surface next to or under the base of their host anemone. They deposit eggs, mouth, guard and fan them. When they become free-swimming, the fry are dispersed like planktonic zooplankters. They reproduce throughout the year, laying a few hundred to a few thousand eggs about once a month.

Many species have been spawned and reared in captivity. These are vastly superior to wild-collected specimens for longevity, disease-resistance/carrying.

Sound Production: 

Yes, they are noisy! Clicks and grunts of various types and apparent function have been detailed and is a rich research area.


Is not problematical with these fishes. They readily consume dry, prepared, freeze-dried, frozen, live and fresh foods. In the oceans, most rely mainly on zooplankton, with some considerable algal matter found in stomach contents analysis studies. It is suggested that a variety of prepared fresh foods, including vegetable matter be offered on a twice-daily basis. Use the foods you recommend in the store; this will insure good results in your customer's aquariums.


Anemonefishes (especially wild ones) are susceptible to many environmental and infectious diseases, and are hosts to numerous species of ectoparasites including isopods, monogenetic trematodes (flukes) tapeworms and roundworms.

Most are lost either through the initial collection to the retailer process, or the first losses of infection, or poor water quality maintenance, or even more regrettably, "treatment".

Particularly problematical with these species are initial situations where specimens are compromised/debilitated extensively and rapidly "breaking down" (see photos). This combination bacterial, fungal, protozoan mess, so common in newly imported clownfish might be termed "new Anemonefish syndrome".

Left unchecked and not, this "syndrome" results in mass mortalities of captured specimens. Among the most often identified pathogens, the algae Oodinium and the protozoans, Cryptocaryon and Brooklynella are common parasites of newly-arrived Anemonefishes.


Prevention, as usual, is the rule.

1) Pick out reasonable stock as detailed in the selection of this article.

2) Do a brief freshwater dip to remove some/most external grunge (a scientific term).

3) Quarantine your new stock if at all possible/practical with or without their anemone for a couple of weeks.

4) Introduce them to their new viable, display aquarium. If possible with your invertebrate selection.

If you find yourself with clownfish with an apparent infection/infestation that seems to necessitate treatment:

1) Check and adjust your water quality. Most "disease" conditions of captive aquatic systems are a result of poor water or system quality. Do not just start pouring a therapeutic into your tank(s). Often, moving the clown's to a different system effects a fast "cure".

2) After quickly doing whatever you can to "re-center" your system, consider further treatments in the following order of priority:

A) Biological: Add a symbiotic anemone if you don't have one or move the fish(es) to a system with one. Add a cleaner; a suitable Labroides wrasse, cleaner goby, cleaner shrimp; they work.

B) Physical: Lower your specific gravity. Even with most invertebrates, dropping the specific gravity a few thousandths per day to 1.018-1.019 will not do permanent damage and may shift the balance of favorable conditions to your fishes.

C) Chemicals: Last and least. Be careful. Clown fish are like "canaries in a cave". They tend to be sensitive to the same toxins as their host actinarians (anemones). Copper, other metal salts, organic or metallic dyes, furan compounds, and organophosphate pesticides all have deleterious to disastrous effects. These substances in various formulations, comprise most of the "medicine treatments" available and used in our aquatics interest. They do have some limited, appropriate applications in bare marine treatment tanks. All invertebrates must be removed prior to and during treatment; and the therapeutic(s) removed with chemical filtration or tear down, prior to reintroduction of invertebrates.

These chemical therapeutics are dangerous and unnecessary with Clownfishes. "Experiment" with them only as a last resort.


Allen (1974) lists the following possible aquarium fish families as potential predators:

Muraenidae Moray eels

Synodontidae Lizardfishes

Serranidae Groupers, Basses

Cirrhitidae Hawkfishes

Lutjanidae Snappers

Scorpaenidae Scorpionfishes, Lionfishes, Turkeyfishes

Actually any tankmate with a large enough mouth may eat your Anemonefish, especially in the absence of a symbiotic anemone. Be forewarned: as their family members, the rest of the damsels, clownfish are common forage fishes.


Clownfishes have everything going for them as aquarium specimens. They're hardy, behaviorally interesting, colorful, do well on all types of foods & if you start with healthy specimens and meet their habitat requirements, human-responsive and long-lived. You should definitely have some in stock as they are a "standard" for drawing customers, sell easily and often lead hobbyists to expand into the marine field.

Questions, problems and suggestions re this series may be forwarded to us through this magazine or through our corporate office for our Retail Division, Wet Pets, Nature Etc., Inc. 7550 Trade St., San Diego, CA 92121

Acknowledgement: Thanks and G'day to Dr. Gerald Allen for his inspirational work and writing on Anemonefishes


Allen, Gerald R., 1974. The Anemonefishes. Their Classification and Biology. 2nd Ed. T.F.H. N.J.

Allen, G.R., 1979. The Anemonefishes of the World: Species Care & Breeding; Handbook for Aquarists, Divers and Scientists. Aquarium Systems, Mentor Ohio

Barkley, M. 1975. A Thousand Clowns. Wet Pet Journal, Dec. 1975

Branowski, E., 1985. Spawning & Rearing the Clownfish, A. rubrocinctus, Richardson. FAMA 7/85

Campbell, D., 1981. Marines: Their Care and Keeping, Anemonefishes. Part 1 and 2. FAMA 5,6/81

Goldstein, R. J., 1982. Breeding Anemonefishes; Aquarist & Pondkeeper, pt 1 46(11) 1982, pt 2 47(1) 1982

Hoff, F., 1984. Pairing Clownfish, FAMA 9/84

Lindner, R., 1986. Some Notes of Breeding Clownfish, FAMA 6/86

Young, F.A. & Guerrant, C. 1984. Raising Clownfish for the Hobbyist. FAMA 9/84


Clownfish prices Hi I am a researcher interested in the social behavior and population dynamics of clownfish.  I am currently writing an article for the journal Conservation Biology on the potential for sustainably harvesting the clownfish (Amphiprion percula).  I am looking for information on the relative value of clownfish of different sizes.  I was wondering if you could give me a price estimate for clownfish of 20mm, 25mm, 30mm, 35mm, 45mm, 55mm.  If not, can you point me in the direction of someone who might have this info? Many thanks for your help,  All the best Pete Buston <Either the folks at Tropic Marine Centre (UK) of ORA (Florida) would likely be able to give you good data... the FOB cost for both these companies tank-raised amphiprionines is about six dollars US in hundred lots... usually size at somewhere between 25-30mm. Most folks don't sell smaller (for higher incidental mortality reasons) or larger (for costs of production, shipping reasons) individuals. There are many "home/hobby breeders/culturists" of these fishes however... most selling to their local market on a time to time basis... mainly A. percula or ocellaris. Bob Fenner>

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