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Clownfish

Scientific name: Amphiprion species

Country: Worldwide tropical

Continent: Oceania, Asia, Africa, South America, Central and North America

Diet: Algae, crustaceans, molluscs

Food & feeding: Omnivore

Habitats: Ocean

Conservation status: Not Threatened

Relatives: Thread-fin damselfish

Description: Up to around 13 cm in size, these colourful species are usually covered in bold zones of colour - white, orange, yellow and brown. The common clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) are the most familiar of the clownfish and the type most frequently found in pet shops. They originate from the Indo-Pacific region, often being found in association with the large anemone Stoichactis.

Fire clownfish or red and black anemonefish (Amphiprion melanopus) are often regarded as just a dark form of tomato clownfish (Amphiprion frenatus), but recent studies suggest they are distinct enough to be a separate species. They are found around the islands of the South West Pacific, usually in association with the cluster-dwelling anemone Physobrachia douglasi. As juveniles, these fish are a bright red colour with a large black patch on each side, but the redness darkens as they mature becoming almost a uniform maroon in old age.

Yellow-tailed or chocolate clown (Amphiprion clarkii) are another very popular clownfish, but hardier and more aggressive than the common clown. They are also found in the tropical Indo-Pacific region, resting motionless in an anemone for much of the day, only dashing out now and again to snap up a tasty morsel. They are characterised by two (sometimes three) bright white vertical bands on an orange-brown base, which gets progressively darker with age.

Lifestyle: All clownfish live amongst the tentacles of sea anemones, gaining protection from them.

Family & friends: These fish are fiercely territorial, living in groups and guarding their anemone against other unfamiliar clownfish. The largest fish in any group is a female and the smaller fish are males. If the large female should die, the largest male will change sex and take over the female's role. Changing sex like this is common in many different sorts of reef fish.

Keeping in touch: Clownfish seem to be immune to the stings of anemones, because their skin is covered in a coating of slime. This tricks the anemone because it feels like it is touching itself when it touches the slime of the clownfish and so does not sting.

Growing up: A clownfish pair will spawn on a cleaned piece of coral or rock next to an anemone, both parents sharing the egg-guarding duties. The young, when they hatch, spend about two weeks floating in the open sea before settling on the reef and looking for an anemone host.

They are also known as clown anemonefish, due to their symbiotic relationship (it benefits both sides) with sea anemones that are usually deadly to small fish. The clownfish secretes a chemical that renders them undetectable amongst the anemones tentacles, and thus providing a safe home. In return for this protection, the clownfish make short trips out onto the surrounding reef, bringing back food that the anemone also benefits from.

Conservation news: Clownfish are widely collected in the wild to be sold as aquarium fish. Their shallow coral reef habitat is easily damaged by water pollution, storms, and dynamite fishing.