The clownfish won America's heart in 2003 when Finding Nemo was released. Audiences were delighted to find out that the charming orange-and-white striped fish were not only real, they were available for owners of saltwater aquariums and could be kept with a minimum of investment and effort. Though many years have passed, the clownfish has remained a strikingly popular choice for tropical fish collections across Europe and the United States.
The clownfish is a small saltwater reef fish native to the South Seas that has become very popular among Western fishkeepers. Hardy and not too demanding, clownfish thrive in warm water and get along fairly well with most other species. You can find clownfish for sale from reputable dealers in most Western countries, and there are loads of online tutorials that can walk you through setting up your first saltwater aquarium for them.
Clownfish are endemic to the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest living structure stretching over 1,000 miles in the southern Pacific Ocean. On the reef, clownfish tend to stay close to the shelf areas, where they make their homes inside of sea anemones. These are kind of like jellyfish that spend their lives cemented to the rock face, providing excellent protection for the otherwise very vulnerable little clownfish.
Domestic clownfish are totally legal in just about every jurisdiction. While the Great Barrier Reef is threatened, and wild clownies themselves are a protected species, licensed pet dealers are free to buy and sell captive-bred clownfish with proper credentials. Reputable dealers should have regularly inspected facilities and current licensure to keep everything aboveboard.
Clownfish make pretty good pets for intermediate aquarium enthusiasts. While not as simple to keep as freshwater goldfish, they do make a very achievable step up from the simple glass bowl of a kid's first fish habitat. You can keep multiple clownies in one space if you know what you're doing, and they tolerate mild stress from indoor lighting and temperature fluctuations relatively well.
You can bring a clownfish home to a regular saltwater aquarium setup, though it's a good idea to isolate wild clownies for a while before introducing them to the main population of an established tank. Make sure you have at least 20-30 gallons per fish to keep them happy, and never pack male clownfish in together too closely, or else they may get to fighting.
Because the clownfish's native habitat is crowded with other species of fish, and in fact, it's one of the most complex ecosystems in the whole ocean, they tend to be tolerant of other fish in their space. You can usually put a clownfish in with almost any other reef fish, though you may want to be careful if some of your aquarium's residents are dedicated carnivores.
Clownfish eat just about anything that fits in their little mouths. In the wild, these little survivalists can eat meat from other fish, small shellfish, and debris that drifts into their parent anemone. They're also opportunistic vegetarians that will nibble on anything green that doesn't actively resist them. Mother clownies may eat their own eggs from time to time, so if you're breeding them, it pays to keep them separated.
Clownfish are pretty robust little fish when bred in a proper captive hatchery, but they're typically less healthy when transplanted from the wild. Fish brought in from the reef are prone to weakened immune systems and oddball diseases, including fungal infections, that can spread and contaminate a whole tank. It's a good idea to get your clownie from a reputable breeder or pet store, quarantine them properly, and keep up with antibiotics.
If you have the aquarium set up the right way, your clownfish should live around 5-6 years. Assuming you maintain the right schedule of feeding, vitamin supplements, and regular veterinary attention, a captive-bred clownie can live to about the maximum of its species lifespan. Wild-caught clownfish may not make it that long, since life on the reef is stressful, and they frequently have weakened immune systems from wild diseases and parasites.
Clownfish are a good choice for first-time saltwater aquarists who are looking to get their feet wet with a simple, relatively low-demand reef fish. Clownies are not overly demanding of space, food, or other material investments, and they work out pretty well with other reef species you may wish to experiment with. They're also a standard must-have in the larger aquariums of experienced saltie fans.
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