Understanding Clownfish Humor


By Samantha Mergenthaler


In Disney-Pixar’s beloved film Finding Nemo, there is a running joke about the clown fish who can’t deliver a punch line.  The neurotic little fish tries to tell the joke three times before finally making it to the punch line “with fronds like these, who needs anemones?”  Now, if you are anything like me, you laughed at the pun, unaware of the science behind what the little animated fish had just said.  What you probably didn’t know was the joke was actually scientifically accurate!  How so, you ask? Understanding this joke requires just a little bit of background knowledge.

So without further adieu, here is a crash course in coral anatomy!  Coral is a member of the Cnidaria phylum, which means coral is actually closely related to jellyfish.  Looking at an entire reef, it is difficult to see the family resemblance, but with a focused gaze we can see that each frond(a leaf divided into many smaller sections) is composed of thousands of individual polyps.  Each tiny polyp has a fringe of stinging tentacles, a bottom-cum-mouth, and stomach—just like jellyfish!  Over time, these polyps create a solid base from elements they extract out of the seawater around them.  This base of calcium carbonate grows larger, inch by inch, over hundreds of years.  The coral polyps “grow” rock just as humans grow bones, and eventually the full skeleton of a reef forms.


A healthy coral reef, however, is not simply made up of this white coral skeleton.  There is a second factor that must be present for the coral to form a healthy, vibrant, underwater kaleidoscope.  Over millenia coral has evolved to participate in one of nature’s most splendid, symbiotic relationships with tiny photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae.  These microscopic algae live on the reef’s surface and provide the array of colors we associate with reefs.  As explained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the coral provides the algae with a safe, protected environment, as well as the resources necessary for photosynthesis to occur.  In return, the algae produce oxygen and keep the coral bacteria free.  Along with this helpful algae, the fronds of the coral play host to sea anemones.  A close relative of coral and jellyfish, anemones are carnivorous, stinging polyps that spend most of their lives attached to rocks or reefs.  

The comedic genius of the awkward little fish is that clown fish are one of the only species who are immune to the anemones’ stinging polyps, and are therefore able to live in the anemones to gain protection.

Get it?  ‘With fronds likes these, who needs anemones?’

We know . . . for a clown fish, he’s not very funny.

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