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Clownfish and Their Host Sea Anemones

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Clownfish and Their Host Sea Anemones
Bill Paterno
Over the years, the knowledge of how to maintain even "difficult" corals in an aquarium has expanded dramatically. Unfortunately, the knowledge of what it takes to maintain anemones for any length of time in an aquarium have not kept pace. To be sure, progress is being made, but keeping an anemone in an aquarium for any length of time is still a serious challenge for most aquarists.

Many aquarists who have Clownfish desire to experience the Clownfish/Anemone relationship in their own tanks. In their haste, many of them try to simply add an Anemone to their Fish Only or Fish Only With Live Rock tank in the belief that the anemone will do well. All too often, the advice given to prospective anemone owners is: "give them some light, an occasional piece of shrimp and they'll do fine." Unfortunately, this is a recipe for disaster.

During 1994-1996, about 100 hobbyists who had experience keeping Clownfish-hosting anemones filled out survey forms posted on CompuServe FishNet on the internet. The results were:

  • Less than 2 years experience: 46% of anemones dead after 3 1/2 months
  • 2 to 5 years experience: 40% of anemones dead after 11 1/2 months
  • 5+ years of experience: 27% of anemones dead after 14 months
  • Only one out of every 18 anemones in the survey survived in captivity for 3 years.
  • Only 1 in 36 reached 5 years in captivity.
Since that survey was taken, knowledge of what it takes to keep anemones alive in an aquarium has increased, but the results are probably still valid for those with little or no knowledge of anemone husbandry. The bottom line is that the more you know about and fulfill an anemone's requirements, the better your odds of keeping one alive for extended periods of time.

There are about 1,000 species of anemones, only about 10 are considered natural hosts for Clownfish. For those who insist on trying their hand at keeping an anemone, they might want to choose one of the "least fragile" species:

Chose a healthy specimen. Anemones are collected in the Indo-Pacific area and go through a lot of handling on their way to the retailer. Considering the low success rate of keeping anemones in a hobbyist's tank, why start off on the wrong foot by buying a less than healthy animal?

Symptoms of an anemone that is "not in the best of health" (read: Sick) are:

  • Torn base,
  • Open or loose mouth.
  • Deflated tentacles.
  • White tentacles (indicates loss of zooxanthallae).
  • Unattached base (free-floating in the tank).
  • Not eating.
  • Not sticky to the touch.
Don't succumb to the temptation to purchase a less than perfect anemone. Just like purchasing a fish for your tank: Have the LFS guy show what and that the anemone is eating. Don't fall for the old "I just fed it a couple of minutes ago, so it probably isn't hungry, now" gambit. If it is not eating before you purchase it, it will probably not eat when you get it home.

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