Clownfish – A Complete Guide (Care, Diet, Facts)

Clownfish are sweet, funny, personality-filled saltwater fish. Many people start their love affair with clownfish looking for a Nemo-like pet. It is surprising to learn that there are more than 30 species to look at. Each is beautiful in its own different way.

These are a great beginner fish if you are new to saltwater aquariums. Clowns have an average life of 6 years, and more are living 9, 15, 20 years and beyond.

There’s so much to learn about clownfish. The more time you spend around them, the more you will come to see what a great choice they are. Whether you are making a home for one, for a pair, or more, you will be bringing a friend into your life.


Clownfish Overview

These flattened, oval-shaped fish never grow to be very big. They reach 4 inches are the most. In the aquarium, they like to stay protected in their host spot. Sometimes this looks like a game of peek-a-boo. Clowns are friendly and will come to recognize the faces outside the tank.

Clownfish will swim up to the glass to greet their humans. Not the greatest swimmers, clowns have a wiggly tail movement, like a happy puppy. It’s endearing.

Clownfish Personality

Clownfish are fun pets you can watch for hours. The more you watch, the more you will notice their quirky individuality. They are docile and will swim around interacting with the other fish in their hierarchy. They have a strong organization to their groups, and tend to stick together.

Your clowns will recognize you, but they’ll defend their home against any danger, even your hand. They are peaceful until defensive and don’t mix well with other species of clownfish. They will, in fact, fight other clownfish that aren’t their species.

Distinctive Appearance

The most common clownfish are the orange, Nemo-like Ocellaris and the diverse Percula. Clowns are part of a larger family, Pomacentridae, which also includes damselfish. The Ocellaris has 11 spines on its dorsal fin and very thin black bands around its white stripes. Percula’s dorsal only has 10 spines, and much wider black bands on their strips.

A typical clownfish has three stripes that are all vertical. Find these stripes behind the gills, in front of the tailfin, and right down the center of the body. This center stripe often makes a curve around the side fin, like a shirt-sleeve. The tail, or caudal fin isn’t fan shaped, but rounded. This means clownfish have to work harder to swim.

Breeding Mixed Clownfish

It’s hard to determine the species of some clowns because they have been bred to mix their features. The breeding of these mixed clownfish, creates different and beautiful appearances.

In some, the white bands narrow and almost disappear. In others, the bands stretch to the point of almost covering the body. Clownfish have been bred to be all white, all black, and even tomato red mixed with orange, like a calico cat. In some clowns, the white stripes distort to look like spots on an orange or black background, like a dairy cow.

Born for Change

Clownfish are sequential hermaphrodites. This means they are all are born sexless. Most become males, but the single most dominant develops into a female. The next dominant will become the mating male.

The rest in the group become subordinate males with lower positions in the hierarchy. If the female dies, the dominant male becomes female and the next in order becomes the breeding male. A female clownfish will never transform into a male.

A Home for Your Clownfish

Normal, natural habitat for wild clownfish are the Pacific or Indian Oceans. They inhabit coral reefs and warm shallow areas of lagoons. You’ll never find a clownfish lower than 40 feet. That’s the deepest level that anemones will live.

Clowns like it warm. They need rocks as natural breaks to protect them from strong currents. They’ll keep themselves in the higher levels of the tank, where the current is weak and food is found. Keep your clownfish together in one aquarium, in pairs at least. It is more fun to watch the social antics of a group.

Safety First

Keep the aquarium out of direct sunlight, in a secure location that’s easy to clean from all sides. Clownfish need a safe place, away from curious pets and humans. The movie, Finding Nemo came out in 2003 and kids still love that kooky fish. If a small child tries to get at the clownfish, it could be dangerous for all involved.

Tank Size and Habitat

One clownfish needs a 20 gallon tank. Add another 10 gallons for each new clown. Anemones need way more space. Experts recommend at least 50 gallon tanks for anemones. If you plan to have anemones, to be symbiotic with your clowns, think of the anemones first.

Fill your tank to test for leaks ahead of time. This will save your fish the stress having to move a second time for repair.

Equipment for a Healthy Aquarium

To live a happy live, a clownfish needs a balance of clear water, food sources and low filtration. Strong filters can harm clownfish because they don’t have the strength to swim away. When in doubt, get a bigger tank to help prevent stress and disease.

Aside from the tank, you’ll need light and a heater. Keep the tank between 74-79 degrees Fahrenheit unless you are breeding. Then you’ll want it warmer. You’ll want to be sure that water is between 7.8 and 8.4 pH.

You will also need a hydrometer to measure the gravity in the water. A hydrometer measures the density or salt content of your water. Clownfish require a certain gravity, or pressure the fish must experience to live comfortably. Gravity in a clown tank should be between 1.021 and 1.026.

Happy Space

Set up the tank with space for clownfish to swim and to hide. Clownfish themselves do not need any substrate, which is nice if you like keeping clear water. Some other species do like substrate, and need it to stay healthy. If you plan on adding other species, you’ll need to plan ahead.

The tank stand should solidly support the weight of the aquarium. 1 gallon of saltwater can weigh up to 10 lbs. Fish, like most of us, like ground that doesn’t rock beneath them. Keep the bottom of the tank level with the ground as well.

Hosting Anemones

In the sea, clownfish will form a relationship with another sea animal, the anemone. The clown will find an anemone to call home. It will allow itself to be stung to build immunity. After that the clownfish will develop a mucus around its body. The mucus protects the clownfish from future stings.

Reef water is clear with fewer plankton so an anemone provides shelter and a source of food to the fish. Clownfish help lure prey to the anemone. It’s a great relationship. This same symbiosis plays out in the tank, except that in a tank, anemones can be spot fed.

Symbiosis in the Aquarium

You’ll have to do some experimenting. The relationship doesn’t always take. Both creatures must agree to the symbiosis. Once clownfish host an anemone, they become territorial. They’ll defend their home with aggression. If they lose their anemone for any reason, clowns may experience symptoms of grief.

Pair clownfish with Bubble-tip, Magnificent Anemone, or the Leathery Sea Anemone. If you are building a complete reef tank, read up on the order of acclimation. First let the coral acclimate to the tank, then the anemone, then your clownfish.

In any tank, understand that the anemone wants to choose its own space. Let the anemone move around and choose its home before placing decorative features.

Including Other Fish

The moderate pH that clownfish need allows for other species of fish to share the tank. You can bring in other reef fish. There are many colorful choices such as wrasse, dartfish, or butterfly fish. Clownfish’s relative the Damselfish is another good choice.

For more variety, add fish that live in other levels of the aquarium. Blenny or goby fish provide activity in the bottom of the tank. Peppermint and harlequin shrimp are peaceful tank mates that love to pitch in with the cleaning.

Fish to Avoid

Clownfish are slow swimmers that can’t get away from predators. Any fish larger that the clown will be a stressor. Keep obvious predators like eel, lion fish, or groupers in another tank.

The Omnivorous Clownfish

Clowns are not picky eaters. In the wild, they eat plankton, roe, larvae, anemone tentacles, crustaceans, and bits of algae. If your clownfish are wild caught, they will be most accustomed to mysis or brine shrimp. If captive bred or acclimated, then minced frozen fish or table shrimp will be fine. Bits of spirulina will offer vegetation to your clowns without the algae.

Feed clownfish near their near their host area, where the current won’t pull it around. Adult clowns eat twice a day, youngsters eat 3 or 4 times daily. Spot feed the anemone once or twice a week.

Here’s a tip for a cleaner tank: give the clowns what they will eat in 3 minutes, then clean the waste.

Easy Care Clownfish

These friendly fish are easy to care for. Care is simple, but it is also necessary. Pick up any food scraps you see to prevent them from decomposing. The ammonia created in the process causes nitrate sickness. Change out 20% of the tank’s water every week and clean up algae as spotted.

Your clownfish will let you know if they are feeling unwell by the way they behave. Check your fish every day, watching for changes in color, behavior, eating, or stress. Remember that stress can come from inside and outside the tank. Be sure to develop a relationship with a trusted aquarium store who can help you treat fish that become ill.

Know the Signs of Dropsy and Ich

Dropsy is a bacterial infection that can cause fluid to build in the tissues of your fish’s body. You may find your fish on the bottom of the aquarium. The scales may be sticking outward. There are kanamycin products for sale that can treat the bacterial disease. Move your fish to a separate tank and you’ll clean at the least, 30% of the water in the aquarium.

Ich, or white spot disease, is caused by protozoa infestation. You’ll see the white spots, and your fish trying to scratch on rocks. Remove all inhabitants to other tanks and treat as your vet recommends. Leave your tank fallow for 4 to 6 weeks to starve out the parasites.

Breeding Your Clownfish

You cans breed both Ocellaris and Percula clownfish in captivity. That’s great news because there are many good reasons to breed clownfish. Clownfish are very popular and, in the seas, collectors have overfished. Tank raised fish have better survival rates and longer lives. Wild fish are over stressed when captured.

Clowns are monogamous and only breed with a single partner. You can start the process by raising your tank temperature to near 83 degrees Fahrenheit. Very soon, you’ll begin to see breeding behaviors in the dominant pair.

The Clownfish Mating Ritual

Known as rituals, the clowns begin by touching each other’s dorsal fins in a way that looks like hand holding. The pair will then stand with their heads down as if they are dancing. Then they’ll work together to clean the place where the eggs will lie. This spot is often a flat surface near the host location.

A breeding female will lay up to 1000 eggs every month. The male will take the responsibility of guarding the eggs. The fertilized eggs hatch 8 days later. The newborn fry swim up to the surface for about two weeks to drift with the currents. They then swim down to host their own anemone.

Think Clownfish are Right for You?

If you are thinking of buying a clownfish, get ready to for a tankful of fun. Also be ready to do some shopping. There are many colors and styles and personalities to choose from.

Prices online for a simple captive bred clownfish are affordable. Ocean collected and acclimated clownfish cost more. You’ll pay even more for specialty-bred mixed clowns in exotic colors and styles.

Clownfish are gentle, funny, popular fish. They are the ultimate beginner project if you are ready to get into salt-water aquariums. Shop with care and you’ll find the right breed to match your own personality.

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