No clownin’ around – new post up at Sleeping with the Fishes
Ever wonder what benefit clownfish bring to anemones that make it a mutualism? At Sleeping with the Fishes, my marine ecology blog on the Southern Fried Science Network, I wrote about some new research about nutrient transfer in this symbiotic relationship between clownfish, anemones, and zooxanthellae. Excerpt below!
Anemones and clownfish: a true mutualism?
Of course anemones aren’t famous for their symbioses with zooxanthellae, but rather with the brightly-colored clownfish or anemonefish. Although anemones have nematocysts that they use to sting and shock their prey before consuming it, the anemonefish are able to swim among their tentacles unharmed. (We still don’t know how they develop this ability!) These little guys were made famous by the movie Finding Nemo to their own detriment, ironically, considering the message of the film. But I knew about anemonefish before they sold-out and became famous: in 1999, I wrote my 6th-grade research paper on these puppies!
The benefit to the fish in this symbiotic relationship is clear: living amongst tentacles armed with automatic stinging cells provides a lot of protection to this conspicuous (and tasty!) little fish. But what can a little fish do for an anemone? In my 6th-grade paper, I summarized a 1986 study by Dr. Daphne Fautin suggesting that they provide protection to the anemone:
Dr. Daphne Gail Fautin did an experiment in the Great Barrier Reef. She removed clownfish from their sea anemones to discover what would happen to the fish and the anemones. When she checked back the next day, the anemones had disappeared… It turned out that butterflyfish had eaten the anemones and the clownfish had swum away… The butterflyfish were able to feast on anemone because the clownfish weren’t there to protect their anemone by baring and chattering their teeth or making other threatening noises. Dr. Fautin’s experiment proved that the clownfish/anemone relationship is two-sided because the anemone protects the clownfish and the clownfish protects the anemone.
(I haven’t improved much in the past decade.)
Even as an 11-year old, I remember forcing myself to belabor this point. Despite the results of Dr. Fautin’s experiments, the protection of a non-threatening, bite-sized snack of a fish did not seem to be enough benefit to the anemone for this to be a true mutualism. Is teeth-chattering really the only thing that clownfish bring to the table?
Read on here