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The Engaging, Gender Bending Clownfish

By: John Chandler

Date Posted: 2000-11-03

Peering around the corner and just peaking up and over the tentacles of the anemone is a clownfish that is one of the most engaging creatures of the Underwater World. Clothed in bright orange and white stripes the clownfish is a photographer's dream come true. I have exposed hundreds of rolls of film and countless hours underwater photographing these small fish. I have come to look forward to discovering new clownfish and their anemone partners on every dive trip

The clownfish family is a cluster of small fish closely related to Damselfish that are more correctly known as Anemonefish. Clownfish live in a symbiotic partnership with an animal known as the Sea Anemone. There are many types of anemone, which share a habitat with clownfish. All anemone are venomous and especially to any unwanted visitor that may be attracted into their tentacles by the bright colors of the clownfish. The tentacles of the anemone can, and will, sting the intruder which, at first, stuns then paralyzes their prey which is then shared with their clownfish partners. What a great and natural relationship these two creatures enjoy. Now that you know a little about Anemone and Anemonefish you should know that only two kinds of Anemonefish are actually named clownfish. These are the Real Clownfish (Amphiprion percula) and the False Clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris).

At first, the observant diver will notice at least two clownfish in the anemone but closer inspection may reveal quite a few more hiding beneath the carpet of the anemone. However, the two larger clownfish will dominate your attention and this is where the story gets even more interesting and quite politically correct. Nature, or at least the nature of clownfish, has been into women's liberation long before the phenomenon of the human race's revelations in the 20th century. You see the largest of the two clownfish is the female and she is significantly larger and quite dominant in the anemone. The smaller clownfish is the male who seems to dart about the anemone cleaning around the house while the female seems to spend more time away from home than the male. Now the story gets even better. When the female meets her demise and passes on from old age, or barracuda, eel, grouper, or aquarium collector, the smaller male changes (presto-chango) gender into a female and drives the anemone. It appears all clownfish are reared in the anemone as males and stand in line to become female. So the female gets out of the house more often to attract their prey back into the anemone where the male, who has been keeping the place clean, is excitedly darting about working to lure prey down and into the anemone for all (but the prey of course) to enjoy.

Traveling across the reefs in the Western and Southern Pacific, especially here and throughout Okinawa, numerous beds of anemone of will splash their colors on and between the coral heads. Anemone, and their even more colorful inhabitants, will be found nestled between or on rocks and often-perched high enough to be an attraction for their prey. They are easily found and enjoyed even better when you know just a few of the facts that make "fish watching" a fun thing to do on every dive. Years ago a dive was not complete unless you speared, gigged, knifed, or trapped a fish, lobster, ray or octopus. Now that the price of cameras has become significantly less than that of spear guns it makes perfect sense to take pictures and leave only bubbles. It makes even more sense for us to take the time and learn just a little more about the interesting things that are going on right under our eyes. Next time you are cruising the reef and come across a small family of clownfish I recommend you stop and enjoy the family scene. Watch them for just a while and you will feel that you have become more a part of the world we enjoy. Look again and you will see even more. See you at the Beach.

See the beauty of Okinawa and the Pacific on John's website at www.jwchandler.com.

All Photos Copyrightę, John Chandler

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