Amphiprion akallopisos (skunk clownfish); Heteractis magnifica (magnificent sea anemone); photographed in Seychelles
Amphiprion akallopisos (skunk clownfish); Heteractis magnifica (magnificent sea anemone); photographed in Seychelles

Beautiful Friendship

Bound in an alliance of mutual benefit, clownfish and their host anemones are the crown jewels of coral reefs.

When Andrew Stanton set out to make an animated children's movie set in the ocean and faithful to "the real rules of nature," all he needed was the perfect fish for his main character. Combing through coffee table books on sea life, his eye landed on a photo of two fish peeking out of an anemone. "It was so arresting," Stanton says. "I had no idea what kind of fish they were, but I couldn't take my eyes off them." The image of fish in their natural hiding place perfectly captured the oceanic mystery he wanted to convey. "And as an entertainer, the fact that they were called clownfish—it was perfect. There's almost nothing more appealing than these little fish that want to play peekaboo with you."

So a star was born. Finding Nemo, the Pixar movie Stanton wrote and directed, won the 2003 Academy Award for best animated feature and remains one of the highest grossing G-rated films of all time, taking in over $850 million to date. Nemo—a clownfish of the species Amphiprion percula—introduced millions of children around the world to a wondrous tropical ecosystem: the coral reef and its denizens.

Clownfish get their name from the bold color strokes on their body (from rich purplish browns to bright oranges and reds and yellows), often divided by stark lines of white or black, quite like the face paint on a circus clown. Seeing clownfish darting among the tentacled folds of an anemone is like watching butterflies flitting around a flowering plant in a breeze-blown meadow—mesmerizing.

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