With the growing demand for captive bred marine organisms, it’s no surprise that there are more livestock options for the aquarist to choose from when stocking their reef tanks. ORA (Oceans, Reef & Aquariums), North America’s largest marine ornamental hatchery, announced this year that they have now produced over 10 million fish for the marine aquarium hobby.
Some of these species include cardinalfish, mandarins, dottybacks, assessors, gobies, seahorses, and of course, clownfish. Of the 40 clownfish varieties offered on ORA’s website, only about 13 of them are what would be considered “wild type” fish, animals that exhibit the typical coloration seen in nature; the rest are “designer” clownfish.
These designer clowns can be the result of random genetic oddities spotted in the wild or in growout tanks, as well as the intentional hybridization and/or selective breeding of certain animals in order to achieve specific combinations of traits. The Lightning Maroon clownfish, a new variant that is still expensive and sparsely available, was collected in Papua New Guinea and has been paired and bred with a PNG white stripe maroon clownfish to create more of these incredibly beautiful and unique clowns.
Rod’s Momma clownfish Photo by Alex Rose
The naked ocellaris, which was one of the first readily available designer clownfish morphs, was the result of a unique mutation that was spotted in the midst of an ocellaris growout system before being isolated and propagated. The fairly new Blood Orange clownfish is a hybrid animal produced by pairing a female maroon clownfish with a male ocellaris, resulting in a clown with the large finnage of its maroon mother and the thicker, black-outlined bars of its ocellaris father, with a uniquely red body color. Platinums are the result of years of selectively breeding Picasso Clownfish (perculas) for more and more white, culminating in the production of an almost entirely white clown. There are many ways to create designer clownfish, and more of them seem to be appearing nearly every month.
The popularization of designer clownfish can be seen in a positive or negative light. The increasing demand for designer animals has reduced the need for wild type and consequently wild caught clowns, which is certainly a good thing considering how many clownfish are collected off reefs worldwide, making designer clowns a great sustainable livestock option. As it became apparent that the market for clownfish was expanding, this also encouraged the breeding of some of the more rare clownfish species that are protected from most wild collection and were available only occasionally and in small numbers. Aquarists can now purchase captive bred A. latezonatus and A. mccullochi, both rare clownfish species with tiny geographical ranges that used to be almost unobtainable, and can buy them without having to forego eating for a few weeks in order to pay for them.
Conversely, some people view this “guppification” of clownfish as a negative development that diminishes the value of animals with wild type coloration, warning that the proliferation of designer strains is nothing more than a ploy used by companies to make money off the folks willing to pay top dollar for the newest, most outlandish clownfish morph. It is also felt by many that it is far more important to emphasize the wild biodiversity of animals for conservation purposes in comparison to the glamorization of mutations resulting from selective breeding and captive pairings that would never occur in the wild. The catch-22 here is that some of the most recognized designer clownfish get their looks from “natural” genetic mutations including but not limited to the Lightning Maroon, Picassos and Platinums, positing that “designer” does not inherently indicate an “unnatural” animal. A Longfin mutation was recently discovered almost simultaneously, but independently, by Sustainable Aquatics (Longfin ocellaris) and Sea & Reef Aquaculture (Longfin black ocellaris). The Longfin phenotype is incredibly common in a wide variety of freshwater fish and has long been suspected to be a possibility in marine fish as well. After breeding many thousands of ocellaris, the Longfin mutation appeared without any manipulative breeding efforts, indicating that this trait is in fact one that could occur “naturally,” although is it yet to be observed in the wild.
While unique color morphs can indeed be viewed in an unsavory light, there seems to be much more good to come from this designer trend than bad. It furthers our understanding of fish genetics and inheritance patterns for different traits, promotes captive breeding efforts, provides the marine aquarium trade with a growing array of attractive, sustainable livestock choices, and is an opportunity to expand our knowledge base in a way that could potentially supplement our understanding of the genetic driving forces behind wild biodiversity. Some worry that a focus on breeding designer clowns will undermine the need to preserve wild genetic diversity, but it could do the opposite by giving us a better idea of exactly what constitutes “natural” variation and perhaps expanding our definition of this concept.
Alex Rose is a biologist (BS and MS Biology), diver (PADI Divemaster), musician, underwater photographer, and lover of all things aquatic. Her driving goal is to find ways to protect our world’s coral reefs through diving, writing, education, and the establishment of a sustainable marine aquarium trade.