One of the first marine fishes that new aquarists consider when entering the hobby -- and a favorite of all fishkeepers, novice and expert alike -- are the Anemonefishes, or Clownfishes, of the family, Pomacentridae (the Damselfishes), and sub-family, Amphiprionae. Rarely is a hobbyist's system observed that does not contain a representative of one of the 28 some-odd species of clowns. This is entirely understandable considering that the Anemonefishes span the entire range of suitability for an array of marine setups. Some species are very placid in their demeanor, fitting well into calm community environments, while others are so rough and tough that they demand "like" neighbors who will not readily succumb to their aggressive tendencies. However, all are quite durable on the whole and most exhibit better than average vigor if initially acquired in a healthy and unstressed state. But finally, they are just a joy to observe and maintain, and they rate top marks on personality alone.
On a personal experience level and as a frame of reference for this article, I have kept Anemonefishes, and in particular Tomato Anemonefishes, for a total of 13 years in community and reef setups, and have a few observations and recommendations to pass along to anyone considering the possibility of adding a particular species of this sub-family, and of the tomato group, to a community tank setting. The two species that I have the most experience with are an 11-year old Tomato Clown (Amphiprion frenatus) maintained in a fish only setup, and a Cinnamon Clown (A. melanopus) which has resided in a community reef system for the past three years. These are also the two most commonly available and hardier members of the Tomato Complex of Anemonefishes.
Further taxonomic classification also divides the two genera, Premnas and Amphiprion, into six clown "complexes:" the Maroon Complex, containing only the Maroon Anemonefish (Premnas biaculeatus), the Percula Complex, the Skunk Complex, the Clarkii Complex, the Saddleback Complex, and finally, the subject of this article, the Tomato Complex (which some references refer to as the Ephippium Complex). This is one particular group which contains some of the hardiest and most commonly available members of the sub-family Amphiprionae, as well as those that are not as frequently available in the trade due to geographically restricted distribution. Five species are generally accepted as valid members of the Tomato Complex: the Red Saddle Anemonefish (Amphiprion ephippium), the Tomato Anemonefish (A. frenatus), the Cinnamon or Red & Black Anemonefish (A. melanopus), McCulloch's Anemonefish (A. mccullochi), and the Australian Anemonefish (A. rubrocinctus).
A typical member of the Tomato Complex exhibits a physiology that is evidenced in a deep, oval-bodied, and robust individual. In the aquarium, these fishes usually reach an adult size of around 3 to 5 inches. There may be some variation of coloration within a species depending on the specimen's geographic origin, but many variations in color simply come with age. This variation is usually evident in the location, extent or amount of black across the central body and the degree or hue of the "red to orange to yellow" coloration. Case in point, my A. frenatus exhibits a deep true red coloring along all body margins while the body margins of my A. melanopus do not conform to the moniker of "red & black, " not being red at all, but rather exhibit a bright orange appearance. But I have seen examples of A. frenatus that are more orange than red, and A. melanopus which are more red than orange. The yellow caudal fin of A. melanopus will aid in distinguishing it from A. frenatus, which will have a red caudal fin. The Tomato Clowns have 2 or 3 stripes while juveniles, but as mature adults typically retain only the single head stripe. The head stripe may be white or take on an attractive bluish hue, and may vary somewhat in width.
The Red Saddle Anemonefish, from the eastern Indian Ocean to Indonesia, usually exhibits a more extensive red area and a lesser black area -- the "saddle" -- which extends from behind the head and underneath the dorsal fin, to the caudal peduncle. Also, it commonly lacks the white head band at maturity. Some members are not commonly found in local fish stores due to their natural limited distribution in the wild. Of these, the Australian Anemonefish, rarely imported from southern Australia, exhibits the black body with yellow-orange to deep orange margins from the head to the caudal fin. The dorsal fin is also yellow-orange to deep orange. A. rubrocinctus may closely resemble the Cinnamon Anemonefish, A. melanopus.
McCulloch's Anemonefish is unique among the group in that it typically displays almost a full black body with a single white head stripe at maturity and a white caudal fin. This species is endemic to Australia. A. frenatus and A. melanopus are more widely distributed across the Pacific, and thus are commonly imported and more readily available in the trade.
Health and Selection
Of the two individuals currently in my care, they have proven to be the toughest, and all-around healthiest, fishes I have ever kept. Between the two, the only disease ever noticed and treated was a severe case of pop-eye with A. frenatus several years ago, which I attribute to poor water quality. This symptom, of the disease exophthalmia, only lasted about a week, as successive daily water changes and acute attention to proper water chemistry parameters seemed to provide immediate relief and long-term remedy.
Although Anemonefishes are susceptible to the typical array of common marine diseases, especially clownfish disease (Brooklynella hostilis), white spot disease or marine Ich (Cryptocaryon irritans), and marine velvet (Amyloodinium ocellatum), they are extremely resilient in most cases and easily treatable with the standard remedies and preventative routines (although I have never treated these fishes with copper-based remedies or seen the need, and cannot speak to the effects or results of such treatment in Anemonefishes, but credible sources describe a general sensitivity by Tomato Complex clowns to copper remedies).
As with any fish selection, avoid individuals with visible sores or lesions, heavy respiration, a manifestation of parasites, or those displaying languid behavior and erratic swim patterns. Beyond the initial conscientious and careful selection of healthy individuals and a proper quarantining of new arrivals, diligent system maintenance habits will go further to promote good fish health among the clowns than any other practice I can recommend. And while some other fishes have come and gone in my tanks, by lacking the resiliency to endure, these Tomato Clowns have survived tank crashes, less than adequate environmental conditions (such as overheated or polluted water from power outages and burned-out pumps), contagious diseases that killed other species, and general hostilities.
Compatibility and Behaviors
From the aspect of clown behavior, here is where the conscientious aquarist must draw some lines concerning the type of Anemonefish temperament which is most desirable and fits within the parameters of the target system. As has been stated, clown behavior spans a broad scale, ranking from a passive and unthreatening personality, to an aggressive and even downright cantankerous and intolerant disposition.
Further, a clown's demeanor can be exacerbated by its territorial nature. While not commonly perceived as being as belligerent or as hostile as the adult Maroon Clown (P. biaculeatus), or perhaps even an adult Clark's Clown (A. clarkii), compatibility in community settings still may be constrained somewhat due to Tomato Clown aggression. Through my own observations, the Tomato Clowns do possess an occasional to consistent inclination, and a demonstrated capability, of inflicting harm to tankmates and tank-keepers, but more commonly they can be counted on to enforce their stubborn will upon most any fish tankmate as they choose.
In other words, they may readily assume the self-proclaimed role of "Tank Bass" Often times I have concluded that the tank will be their way or their neighbors can take the nearest ocean current highway. I've never seen the clown lose a battle or a war; the harassed individual has always been eliminated in some manner, whether through the clown's own methods or the keeper's intervention. They are obstinate that way. If a Tomato Complex clown is not to be kept with equally aggressive tankmates, I would certainly suggest a larger tank where aggressions may likely be dispersed and where the clown will prefer to remain close to its preferred territory and not be so disposed to roam far and wide inflicting punishment on lesser inclined tankmates.
Tomato Clowns are considered to be "reef safe" as are all Anemonefishes, and indeed they are highly compatible in a general sense when it comes to their direct associations with just about any form of invertebrate reef critter, from anemones (of course) to Zoanthids.
However, there are three caveats that I wish to add concerning this compatibility and their suitability in a reef environment, which may be negatives from an indirect aspect; these stipulations concern 1) annoying habitual behavior, 2) general disruptiveness within the fish population, and, 3) their relationships with certain corals.
The first of these concerns has to do with their annoying habit of constantly beating the substrate down to the bare tank bottom with the caudal (tail) fin, thus propelling sand into the water column, which in turn can cover delicate sessile invertebrates and clog water pumps and filters with sediment, not to mention that this behavior can be destructive by compromising the integrity of the rock structure.
This activity can also upset a deep "Living" sand bed and may generally be unwanted behavior under most any circumstances (except that of breading behavior, as this trait has been explained as the fish's instinct to locate a flat surface for egg-laying purposes). No matter how often the substrate is redistributed by the fish-keeper, the clown will not relent in displacing it time and again. But the negative or deleterious impact is obvious, especially with an extremely fine substrate material; for one, certain sessile invertebrates are not imbued with the physical ability to cleanse themselves of excessive sediment, while others are, but all sessile organisms will expend a significant amount of energy in doing so. This type of behavior may prove intolerable for some invertebrate species to the point where they do not thrive, or regrettably, they steadily decline and eventually suffer death. This is obviously an important aspect to consider before introducing a Tomato Clown to a reef system. The bottom line is that this habit presents a disturbance in the aquarium which the individual keeper must either put up with or determine as being too disruptive, physically and aesthetically, or entirely too harmful or dangerous for a particular system and its inhabitants.
As for the second point, given their often authoritative nature, Tomato Clowns are inclined to chase subordinate individuals -- closely or remotely related, taxonomically speaking -- about the confines of the aquarium. This is a problem obviously more pronounced in smaller quarters, as a larger tank tends to moderate or eliminate such aggression. This activity has proven fairly disruptive in one of my reef tanks as the Cinnamon Clown continually harasses a rather hyperactive Bluehead Wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum) who seems to continually strain the clown's last nerve. The Cinnamon Clown chases and nips the wrasse incessantly and as a result, the wrasse displaces corals, slings sand, dislodges rocks, and generally disrupts the good order of the community in its attempts to get away. (He would probably do that anyway to some lesser degree, even without the presence of the clown, because he's crazy!) The clown has also recently, but only occasionally, begun chasing a Bicolor Dwarf Angel (Centropyge bicolor) after they have shared their confines peacefully for almost three years. The situation has not yet proven extreme or life-threatening, but disruptive nonetheless. This indicates that any existing tendencies toward an aggressive disposition are probably latent in certain clown species, an inherent trait that may be expected to surface and intensify with age (and the keeper should remain aware, that in general, aggression increases with particular fish species with age, as I have found to be the case with Tomato Clowns). But the rate or extent of an individual's (or species') aggression is difficult to predict, given the many factors involved, and this must be kept in mind when planning for the long-term success of the community.
And finally, in speaking of the third point, in the absence of a host anemone clowns may "adopt" a surrogate host, such as various hard or soft corals. This may or may not result in adverse effect to the coral; it can certainly irritate the substitute to the point that the animal may refuse to open, feed, or receive adequate light, even irritate them to the point of death. In the case of my A. frenatus and A. melanopus, they have at times taken up residence in the polyps of the finger-like or branching soft corals (Sinularia, Nephthea, and Cladiella spp.) with seemingly no adverse effects. The Cinnamon Clown has even adopted a thick, lush growth of filamentous algae on a particular piece of live rock as a "host" where it buries itself and "reclines" when I allow it to grow sufficiently.
Other Notable Behaviors
There are other interesting observations that may prove beneficial to anyone choosing a species of the Tomato Clown complex. The aforementioned Tomato Clown (A. frenatus), acquired as a two-banded juvenile, has often assumed the roles of antagonist and protector, often concurrently. This behavior has been very interesting to observe at times, but has also disclosed quite a few surprises.
The most interesting of relationships concerning A. frenatus that I have observed, also involved a rather inherently passive female Black Spot Angel (Genicanthus melanospilos), and the original Holy Terror, otherwise known as a Dusky Dottyback (Pseudochromis fuscus var. "terror-ensis"). Although the angelfish had been introduced to the Tomato Clown's tank and was fairly well established, the latter introduction of the Dottyback wreaked absolute havoc with any balance that may have existed, first with the angel, but subsequently with every other inhabitant until I shipped the Dottyback out, eventually to be swallowed whole by a Strawberry Hind (Cephalopholis spiloparaea) at my local fish store. (My guess is, the hind lamented the decision to consume this particular morsel of terror and received for its trouble a debilitating case of indigestion!) The Tomato Clown had been very tolerant, accepting the introduction of the angel with scarce notice, and peace reigned supreme. But once the Dottyback was introduced, the Tomato Clown became the angel's protector. Any time the Holy Terror set its sights on the Angel, the clown immediately interceded by placing itself in a defensive position between the two and then, taking the offensive, violently striking at the Dottyback until it was subdued. This behavior continued for several days until the Dottyback was thoroughly controlled and turned its attentions elsewhere for good. This Tomato Clown continues to serve as mediator and intercessor in other minor squabbles, but none so contentious as that involving the Holy Terror versus the Angel. This particular clown has also successfully played the role of protector from other antagonists for a Copperband Butterflyfish (Chelmon rostratus) and a Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto).
However, in many cases, A. frenatus has assumed the role of the primary aggressor. In situations which may just as much demonstrate how stocking order can affect community behavior as it does the unique behavior of Tomato Clowns, the introduction of a South Seas Devil Damsel (Chrysiptera taupou) to the tank already occupied by A. frenatus, almost resulted in the annihilation of the damsel -- thoroughly beaten, frayed and abused in a matter of a few minutes-- before I could extract said damsel and transfer him to another tank, an outcome I would not have predicted! However, in an emergency situation where I had to move a more demure Azure Damsel (Chrysiptera hemicyanea) from a small reef system to the Tomato Clown's tank, where I thought it would promptly be shredded, there was no contention from the Tomato Clown whatsoever. Further, regarding the introduction of two wrasses to the tank, a juvenile Cortez Rainbow Wrasse (Thalassoma lucasanum), still in initial phase coloration, and an adult Whipfin Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus filamentosus), the Labrids endured only occasional but intense and brutal torment by the Tomato Clown until one lay disemboweled and the other decided life would be far more peaceful if lived outside of the tank and dried up on the floor. Although the Tomato Clown resides peacefully today with an adult Canary Wrasse (Halichoeres chrysus) with only very infrequent chases, and has for about 4 years, I have recognized a somewhat predictable pattern here. As a rule, these clowns seem fairly intolerant of highly energetic and very active wrasses in general, perhaps not the best of tankmates in terms of compatibility. (Wrasses swarm upon clown habitats in nature to prey upon their eggs, so a clown's reactions may be instinctively induced.) Certainly, the more placid, secretive and smaller wrasse species, such as the fairy wrasses, flasher wrasses, and other timid species would prove mere fodder for the aggressions of a belligerent clown, although I have always kept various members of the Lined Wrasses (Pseudocheilinus spp.) with Tomato Clowns with no ill effects, perhaps because of the secretive and reticent, but also occasionally feisty, personalities of these rather small Labrids. Still, this latter combination should be carried out with caution.
Symbiosis: Anemonefishes and Host Anemones
In its most literal definition, the term symbiosis means, To live together In a more expanded sense however, it may imply mutualism; though usage of the latter definition suggests that there exists some necessary benefit to one partner or the other, or both. Then, if taken in its fullest sense, mutualism could also propose that a symbiotic relationship is crucial for the survival of the organisms involved, being totally dependent one upon the other. This type of symbiosis certainly exists in nature among various species, aquatic and terrestrial, and while there is surely a beneficial mutualism between the Anemonefishes and their host anemones of the order Actinaria, it is simply not the case that there exists an obligatory exclusivity within the confines of the very limited dimensions of our captive systems. Many would-be Anemonefish-keepers have somehow drawn the conclusion that a host anemone is necessary to ensure the good health and welfare of their cherished clownfish. This belief must be dispelled by aquarists who possess enough knowledge and experience to influence novice and uninformed aquarists throughout the hobby of the probable failure and environmental inconsiderations involved. In reality, the decision to acquire an anemone and re-create this amazing symbiotic relationship in an aquarium, is an ill-informed one, and most likely, ill-fated in regard to the actinian. While the relationship between Anemonefishes and their host anemones provide some mutual advantage in the oceans, and is fascinating to observe first-hand, the Anemonefish does not require it and the anemone will most likely not survive it, for even a relatively short time. In nature, the association is mutually beneficial for a number of reasons but is not yet even fully understood. Much research remains concerning this special symbiosis as well as the husbandry requirements that will allow anemones to survive -- and thrive -- in captivity, if it is at all possible for prolonged periods. Currently, captive anemone survival rates are dismal, with most individuals perishing within a few months, if not weeks. Even expert reef-keepers are severely challenged by the prospect of ensuring their survival, which is nowhere on the order of the survival rates that have been achieved regarding captive stony corals.
An Anemonefish is never found without a host anemone in the ocean, as the actinian offers a safe haven within its stinging-celled tentacles, a formidable defense that most other fishes are averse to approach, and an encounter which they instinctively know may result in their demise. In reality, the clown will only live a short time if separated from its host due to the constant predation that occurs in coral reef habitats. It is just a matter of when the clown will be consumed. Conversely, there are various organisms which prey upon anemones, and the relentless aggressiveness of the clown to protect its home is a compelling deterrent as well.
There is still much debate concerning the many other facets of the clown/anemone relationship that will certainly lend answers in the future, but the point is, in the oceans the symbiosis is necessary. In the home aquarium, providing an anemone as a host for an Anemonefish is totally unnecessary and a breach of the respect that we, as conscientious protectors of the environments we attempt to perpetuate, inherently bear a responsibility towards. By removing an anemone from its natural ocean habitat, both the collected actinian and the clownfish that might have inhabited it, will most likely perish.
For the aforementioned reasons, I have never personally kept a clown with its host anemone, and chose not to do so until further advances in successful husbandry practices are made and substantiated. As is the case with my first Anemonefish, the 11-year old A. frenatus spoken of in this article, Anemonefishes are certainly capable of living long, healthy and contented lives in the home aquarium without this symbiotic relationship.
At this point I would be remiss if I did not offer the following qualifying statement: I do not intend to propose that all Tomato Clowns will exhibit identical traits such as those I describe here, but rather attempt to make the point that these particular behaviors may be manifested to some degree by members of the complex, by a particular species within the complex, or by a specific individual at some point in time, given certain or similar circumstances and situations. To make this point, although A. frenatus and A. melanopus have both manifested the tendency to harass various wrasses, only the Cinnamon Clown has been prone to annoy any Angelfish species, and very mildly at that, while my Tomato Clown has lived peacefully with a Coral Beauty Dwarf Angelfish (Centropyge bispinosus) and the aforementioned Black Spot Angel (G. melanospilos) for years. And as A. frenatus has chased tankmates to their demise, A. melanopus has never inflicted serious damage upon any of its neighbors. Then in the case of the previously mentioned South Seas Devil Damsel, thrashed by the Tomato Clown, the same damsel has never been given a moments notice by the Cinnamon Clown since being rescued and moved to its tank.
Over many years there are several such observations, but these episodes reflect a general and consistent behavior of the Tomato Clowns in my care.
Based upon my own experiences over this time, I advise that the following be given serious consideration before the purchase of an Anemonefish from the Tomato Complex is made:
The Anemonefishes of the Tomato Clown complex will prove to be durable, long-lived and enjoyable animals if careful consideration is given to their overall demeanor, habits, compatibility, and general care.
Tomato clown beh. – 11/19/12