Can Clownfish Live Without Anemones?

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Almost every fish owner knows about the symbiosis between clownfish and anemones. Even in fish tanks, it seems like the presence of the two is crucial to survival. That got me into wondering whether or not can clownfish live without anemones at all. As I dug into the topic a little deeper, I was surprised to know how wrong my thoughts were.

Yes, clownfish can survive without anemones, especially in domestic fish tanks, where there is no apparent threat. Nevertheless, that is not the case in the wild. When there are predators nearby, anemones are essential to clownfish, and the symbiosis between the two is fundamental. 

As we move forward in this article, I will elaborate on when you should stick with anemones, and when you can skip them. I will also share with you what kinds of anemones can coexist with which clownfish, so you may ensure their symbiosis.

Also Read: Clownfish Care Guide

Can Clownfish Survive Without Anemones?

This question emanates from the fact that clownfish and anemones are synonymous with each other, especially in scholarly circles. As far as most people are concerned, clownfish and anemones cannot live without one another.

That conclusion is not wrong. However, it is not entirely right, either. Clownfish need anemones, and yet they can also live without them. That answer probably sounds nonsensical. Both of those things can’t possibly be right. But, they are.

To understand why that might be the case, you must first understand the relationship between anemones and clownfish. I will get into that later on in this article. For now, let’s try to understand the dependence of clownfish on anemones.

Back to the question at hand. Can clownfish live without anemone? No, they cannot, if they are wild clownfish residing in their natural habitat. Yes, they can, if they are domesticated clownfish living in a tank.[1]

Wild clownfish need anemones because there are so many dangers in their natural environment. They have to protect themselves and their offspring from every large fish that wishes to either harass or eat them.

In that regard, you can successfully argue that wild clownfish cannot live without anemones. However, many biologists will argue against such definitive language. They will tell you that clownfish can actually survive on their own in the wild, even without the protection of anemones.

This makes them more vulnerable to attack. But they can still survive. As such, it would be more accurate to call their relationship with anemones’ mutualism’.

That being said, for the most part, it is in the best interests of wild clownfish to live with anemones. However, this same argument does not apply to clownfish in tanks. They have no enemies to hide from. So anemones have nothing to offer them.

In fact, some fish owners have tried recreating this symbiotic relationship by introducing anemones to their tanks only for the clownfish to reject them. Domestic clownfish are more than happy to get by on their own without any assistance from anemones.

The Clownfish Perspective

Clownfish are nothing new to most of you. They live in salt water, and they have bright orange bodies with three white stripes. They have an average size of 5 inches. The most astounding aspect of their biology is the fact that they are hermaphrodites.[2]

They are all born male. The largest and most aggressive female always occupies the most dominant position. Once this dominant female dies, the most dominant male will become a female. It eventually mates with the strongest male, which is usually the second most dominant fish in the school.

It is this male that will become a female once the current dominant female dies. It is a fascinating cycle that repeats over and over again. As you might have surmised from the description of the females, clownfish are aggressive creatures.

However, they are hardly the most durable species in their waters. At five inches, there are plenty of larger fish that are more than happy to eat them. However, the biggest threat to their existence is humans who are continually capturing them to use the creatures as decorative pets in their tanks.

The Anemones Perspective

These creatures look a lot like plants. But you shouldn’t let their appearance fool you. They are living animals, predators to be exact.[3] You usually find them attached to rocks and coral. They prefer to sit patiently, waiting for fish to swim by.

If they get close enough, the anemones will sting them with their tentacles, filling them with a poison that can paralyze and ultimately kill them.

Typically, you will find anemones deep in the ocean. Less frequently, you will find them in aquariums, although it is possible. Some fish owners grow them precisely to make their clownfish feel in their natural habitat.

Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, it is not necessary to grow the two in the same tank if there is no apparent danger to your clownfish. If most of the fish in the tank are docile and relatively small, your clowns will survive without the known symbiosis with anemones. 

The Clownfish And Anemones Dynamics

Clownfish and anemones should have nothing to do with one another. You might be surprised to know that anemones could kill fish like clownfish all the time. Anemones have harpoon-like stingers called nematocysts that they use to capture prey.

That should make them the clownfish’s natural enemy. And yet the opposite is right. Clownfish and anemones don’t merely live harmoniously beside one another. Clownfish actually live in anemones, using them as hosts.[4]

This probably sounds like the most astounding revelation to people who have never heard of anemones. But the pair share a symbiotic relationship, one that benefits both of them. You may be surprised to hear that, in some cases, anemone may fail to survive without clownfish.

First of all, the clownfish will clean their anemone hosts by eating their leftover food and any algae they find lying around. They will even eat dead anemone tentacles. This works in favor of the anemones.

Because clownfish are quite active, they will lure fish back to the anemone, keeping the plant-like creature fed. Some studies have also proven that clownfish play a role in helping anemones breathe at night.[5] Moreover, anemones rely on local currents to bring them oxygen and nutrients.

Clownfish perform frenetic dances in between the tentacles of the anemones, keeping them aerated. Without the clownfish, the water would grow stagnant in some of the zones around the anemone. This would limit the movement of elements that the creature desperately needs, including gases, nutrients, and even prey.

The anemones can use their tentacles to move the water back and forth to prevent the manifestation of stagnant zones. But they don’t do that impressive a job, which is why they need clownfish. The movement of their bodies results in better water circulation.

But this isn’t a one-sided relationship. Clownfish only settle in anemones because they benefit from the arrangement. As was mentioned above, at 5 inches, clownfish are easy prey for bigger fish. They rely on anemones for protection.

Anemones are not necessarily the most ferocious creatures in the sea. However, their tentacles are an intimidating weapon that will keep most enemies away. This makes them the perfect home for clownfish, especially when they are breeding.

They can count on the anemones to keep their young ones safe. The clownfish is not the only one that enjoys the defensive benefits of this relationship. Butterflyfish have an affinity for anemone polyps. Clownfish will keep them away.

How do Clownfish Survive in Anemones?

Like most people, you are probably wondering why clownfish can live peacefully in anemones when the creatures are more than happy to sting every other fish. Do they simply choose to ignore clownfish because they understand the benefits of nurturing a symbiotic relationship?

No, they don’t. Anemones do not have that kind of intelligence. Anemones are more than happy to sting clownfish. However, clownfish have a pretty effective defense against this assault.[6] Their bodies are covered in a layer of mucus that is 3 or 4 times thicker than what you find in other fish.

It is this layer of mucus that keeps the sting of the anemones at bay. Some scholars suggest that clownfish have their own layers of mucus that can either block the sting of an anemone altogether or repel its consequences.[7] These same scholars also believe that this mucus has a similar composition to the mucus produced by the anemones.

Other scholars suggest that clownfish have found a way to coat themselves with the anemone’s own mucus. Doing so makes them invisible. They can kiss, touch, and rub their bodies against the creature’s tentacles because the anemone cannot see them.

It is further believed that clownfish are born with a layer of mucus that grows stronger once it mixes with the mucus produced by the anemone. This gives the clownfish an even more powerful defense against the anemone’s sting.

Why do Some Clownfish Reject Anemone Hosts?

Clownfish that were raised in tanks are not familiar with anemones. Their parents and grandparents never saw the creatures. This compelled them to lose any instinct they initially had to seek out anemones for protection.[8]

Just like dogs and other animals, clownfish can be domesticated. That same disinterest is eventually passed on to their offspring, who will gladly ignore any anemones you introduce to their tank in favor of alternatives like toadstool corals.

Sometimes, your clownfish are showing no interest in the anemone you have introduced because you bought the wrong type. There are over one thousand species of anemones in the world. Of those, only ten can live peacefully with clownfish. Additionally, different clownfish prefer different anemones. You have to pair your clownfish with the right species of anemones.

Should You Introduce Anemones to Your Clownfish Tank?

Fish owners love the idea of adding anemones to their tanks because they want to watch the creatures as their clownfish play among their tentacles. That ambition makes sense from an aesthetic point of view.

However, you should think carefully before adding anemones to your tank. Yes, indeed, anemones cannot sting clownfish. However, that does not automatically make them a safe addition. There are a few other things you should take into consideration first.

Clownfish are famous for being very aggressive. This is because they are very territorial. You can blame this on the fact that they spend a lot of time defending their small home in their anemone.

This aggression is especially pronounced in wild clownfish. On the other hand, clownfish raised in a tank are not as aggressive because most of them are raised in group settings. They do not nurture the territorial behavior seen in their wild counterparts.

If you introduce an anemone to your tank, it could make your tank-raised fish more aggressive.[9] And aggression in clownfish can lead to death. Adding anemones to your tank will automatically make your clownfish behave as they do in the wild. 

You should also know that anemones are complicated creatures to keep.[10] They require particular water parameters. Unless you are ready and willing to manipulate the nitrate content, lighting, and salinity, you are better off giving anemones a wide berth.

What Anemones Host Clownfish?

As already mentioned, anemones and clownfish live in symbiosis. If the fish you’ve bought in the store have lived in a bare tank, there is a good chance you won’t need anemones at all. However, if you still wish to match the two, there is one thing you should keep in mind.

Specific anemones host-specific clownfish. There are dozens of species out there, and you have to take into account the natural symbiosis they feature in the wild. Otherwise, you might fail to match the two, even though you made all the tank adjustments. 

For your convenience, here is a table that will summarize the ideal anemones that specific clownfish typically host:[11]

Clownfish TypePossible Anemones
Red and Black ClownfishBubble Tip Anemone, Leathery Sea Anemone
Clark’s Yellowtail ClownfishCarpet Sea Anemone, Bubble Tip Anemone, Beaded Sea Anemone, Leathery Sea Anemone
Orange Skunk ClownfishLeathery Sea Anemone, Merten’s Carpet Sea Anemone
Percula ClownfishLeathery Sea Anemone, Magnificent Sea Anemone, Giant Carpet Sea Anemone
Pink Skunk ClownfishMagnificent Sea Anemone, Corkscrew Sea Anemone, Leathery Sea Anemone

These are merely examples of a few types of clownfish and the anemones that may host them. As you may see, several anemones may coexist with several types of clownfish.

Therefore, if you are not sure which ones you should get, I would suggest either the Leathery Sea Anemone or the Magnificent Sea Anemone.

You may also consult the fish shop owner or watch some YouTube videos that may demonstrate the possible symbiosis. There is no better proof than that.


Angelfish can live without anemones, especially in fish tanks. When there are no predators nearby, there is no reason to protect them. That is precisely true when you already bought your clownfish in bear tanks.

I hope my article has answered your question on whether or not can clownfish live without anemones. If you are about to start your own fish tank, make sure to take the information above into consideration.