Wild Caught vs Captive-Bred Clownfish – Which Should You Get?

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Okay, so you’ve decided you love clownfish. This means you’re ready to learn that you’re just one of the many who have fallen in love with Nemo, and for good reasons.

These fish are a treat to care for, thanks to their resilience, adaptability, and charming personalities.

They are great for beginners and don’t need much to reach their full potential. Most of the clownfish today are captive-bred, but is there another option?

Can you get wild-caught clownfish for your tank, and what should you know in this sense?

The answer might surprise you.

Can I Keep Wild Clownfish in a Tank?

The short answer is ‘most likely no.’ The real problem is that wild clownfish cannot adapt to life in captivity.

Worse, many of them won’t even get into your tank, to begin with. Some rough estimates point out that close to 90% of the wild-caught clownfish die before reaching anywhere near a tank. This sounds shocking, but there’s a good explanation for this.

Several explanations, to be more exact. So, let’s get into them:

The Clownfish-Anemone Relationship

Wild clownfish need anemone to survive. Their relationship is not optional but mandatory. Anemones are predatorial animals of the Actiniaria order, which makes them related to corals and jellyfish.

These animals don’t move much, as their whole body consists of a polyp attached to a trunk and a crown of tentacles that scan the surroundings for food. This isn’t exactly the best locomotory system.

Anemones use their poisonous tentacles to fish for food, roaming nearby, but they can experience some problems due to their lack of movement.

One of them is the proper circulation of water and oxygen between the tentacles, which is where clownfish come in. Clownfish are impervious to anemone stings either via innate or acquired immunity.

They will move through anemone tentacles constantly, driving more oxygen-filled water near the stationary animal.

In exchange, the clownfish gets better food opportunities, as it collects algae and parasites from the anemone’s tentacles, and increased security.

Clownfish have no way of protecting themselves against predators. They lack any defensive mechanisms, have flashy colors that make them visible to everyone, and are very poor swimmers due to their awkward swimming movements.

Clownfish need to use a lot of energy to swim, so they prefer to keep their activity level low.

Separating the wild clownfish from its anemone symbiote will leave the fish ‘naked’ in a state of stress and fear. The shock is generally enough to kill the stressed fish fairly fast.

Transportation Stress

Clownfish are docile animals that love peace and routine. In the wild, they stick to an anemone and participate in that symbiotic relationship for the entirety of their lives.

They get accustomed to one area and one specific lifestyle by entering a life-long routine that gives them peace of mind and comfort.

Taking the clownfish from that environment equates to something of a cultural shock. The fish will lose its confidence, become stressed, refuse to eat, and even die as a result.

Add to this the fact that the transportation itself may last a considerable amount of time, and you can see the problem.

What’s worse, clownfish aren’t exactly kept in ideal conditions during the transport job. They are often kept in small containers with little-to-no water hygiene and improper food.

All these contribute to the fish’s mental and physical degradation, which explains the 90% death rate I mentioned earlier.

Lack of Adaptation

Wild clownfish are used to a certain lifestyle that captive-bred ones are not. That’s because wild clownfish are social animals that learn various behaviors and lifestyles from other clownfish around them.

A wild clownfish used to live in open ecosystems with an anemone symbiote by its side will never adapt to a closed system.

This means that even if your clownfish arrives safely, you can’t count on them to survive very long in captivity.

As you can see, the situation is not bright. So, if you’re still on the edge about whether you should get a wild or a captive-bred clownfish, let’s look into the pros and cons.

Pros of Wild-Caught Clownfish

There are none. On the one hand, your wild-caught clownfish is unlikely to survive the stress of being separated from its anemone host.

On the other hand, even if it survives, the transportation journey will likely kill it. Or the fish will die soon after arriving at its destination.

Either way, we have no pros to consider.

Cons of Wild-Caught Clownfish

  • Wild-caught clownfish have lower lifespans and are more prone to diseases due to higher stress levels
  • Wild-caught clownfish won’t breed in captivity
  • Wild clownfish are generally infested with parasites and bacteria that could infect the rest of the tank fast
  • They are not accustomed to tank conditions, as wild clownfish typically require different water conditions than captive-bred specimens

In short, wild-caught clownfish are a no-go.

Pros of Captive-Bred Clownfish

  • They no longer require the presence of anemones to feel safe or comfortable
  • They breed in captivity, although they require some assistance to do so
  • Captive-bred clownfish are more resilient to diseases, although they do have some specific health issues they can face (Brooklynella specifically)
  • Captive clownfish can live close to 10 years in good conditions (some claims suggest close to 30 years in some cases)

Cons of Captive-Bred Clownfish

There are none. If we’re talking about clownfish, we should be talking about captive-bred clownfish only. There is no comparison here.

This being said, it’s not to say that clownfish have no cons in general. One of the clear cons is the fish’s increased sensitivity to parasites like Brooklynella.

Clownfish require more tank cleaning and assistance than other fish, although not to the extreme.

You just need a clear-cut tank maintenance routine in place to keep your clownfish healthy and happy.

Will Wild Clownfish Breed in My Tank?

No, they won’t. Wild clownfish are very sensitive to their environmental changes and won’t get in the breeding mood, to begin with.

Not to mention, you need at least 2 clownfish for the job, and you’re unlikely to get your hands on a pair of healthy and stress-free wild-caught clownfish.

More importantly, clownfish are keener to breed when kept in groups, but getting a group of wild clownfish is almost unheard of. So, you should better forget about it altogether.

As a plus, many people consider it unethical to breed wild clownfish in a tank. This is due to the fish’s increased predisposition to diseases and stress.

Even if you can breed them, the resulting young are more likely to experience genetic problems along the way.

Can You Mix Wild with Captive-Bred Clownfish?

Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

There are 2 notions to consider here:

  1. The health aspect – Wild-caught clownfish are more likely to have parasites or bacteria that could pass on to the domestic clownfish. Not even quarantining the wild clownfish for a while won’t guarantee that the fish is safe.
  2. The symbiotic behavior – I may sound like a broken record here, but wild-caught clownfish are anemone-dependent. They require anemones’ presence to thrive and are notoriously difficult to keep. Captive-bred clownfish aren’t too interested in anemones; some might adapt to their presence, while others might not.

I don’t recommend mixing the two types of clownfish for these 2 reasons.

Can Wild Clownfish Live with Other Fish?

In theory, yes, in practice, unlikely. The greatest challenge is getting the clownfish to adapt to their aquarium setting, to begin with.

Once that is complete, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t tolerate the presence of other fish as well.

But, as we’ve discussed, you have a long road to go to get there.

Conclusion

To summarize, wild-caught clownfish aren’t meant for aquarium use. Clownfish have been domesticated with time, leading to the fish adapting to its new lifestyle and changing its behavior and physiological functioning.

It’s safe to say that wild-caught and captive-breed clownfish are 2 different sides of the same coin.

Always go for captive-bred clownfish, if only to avoid encouraging the practice of farming wild clownfish, which actually hurts the clownfish populations across the Globe.

avatar I’m Fabian, aquarium fish breeder and founder of this website. I’ve been keeping fish, since I was a kid. On this blog, I share a lot of information about the aquarium hobby and various fish species that I like. Please leave a comment if you have any question.

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