The Trials and Tribulations of Sex Identity

(clownfish style)

coral reef off of Australia

The ocean: Spitting in the face of conservative ideologues since FOREVER.

Remember that part in Jurassic Park when they discovered the raptors were breeding because the genetic tinkerers had used frog DNA and some species of frogs swapped gender?  It happens all the darned time in the ocean.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but while we’ve always been told that everything is genetically female until there’s a Y-chromosome added, the gender change is as likely to be female-to-male as it is to be male-to-female.  Heck, they’ve even observed female-to-male behaviors in coral.

Clownfish are part of the other group, the male-to-female group.  They are protandrous hermaphrodites and each is born male.  Unlike harem fish such as  anthias, where one bright and colorful male has multiple female partners, clownfish form mated pairs.  There are some exceptions – I’ve heard that larger reef tanks and wild reefs can support multiple groups of clownfish pairs and that these become fish gone wild! sex-wise – but usually it’s two males plus six months equals one male one female.

I bring this up because one of my clownfish juvies in the 65g died back in… October?  Gomez and Morticia were pairing up nicely.  Morticia has been around for a goodly while now – she was the replacement for a member of the very first clownfish pair introduced to the tank when it was first established last April.  Morticia is a true perc (Amphiprion percula) and I got lucky with her, as true percs tend to be a little more expensive and she was sold to me as a false perc (Amphiprion ocellaris).  I didn’t know she was a true perc until she matured and her colors deepened.  She is exceptionally pretty.  Somewhere back in her breeding stock was a black perc, as she’s got dark black bars and is a rich orange-gold.

She is also now a he.  I held off on getting her a mate after Gomez died as introducing a new clownfish is always a gamble.  Morticia is still young enough to be male but was becoming a dominant female (she was bigger in size and Gomez was submissive to her).  As she was the the established clown in the tank, I assumed that any smaller clown put in the tank would remain male and she’d continue to grow as female.

Glennz clownfish design is AVAILABLE AS A SHIRT OR LAPTOP SKIN!



Merlin was introduced about six weeks ago.  When I bought him, Merlin was a tiny but healthy false perc male, and I thought he was small enough to not give Morticia any grief.


I’ve never seen anything like it.  Merlin was half her size but he beat Morticia senseless within a week.  The following week, Morticia disappeared from the tank and I thought he had killed her.  Then I caught a glimpse of her every so often caught in the smallest, least accessible nook in the rockwork.  Her fins were in tatters and she had open wounds in her sides.  Merlin had stuck her in a prison and he beat her when she tried to escape.

Then, Merlin started letting Morticia out to eat.  It was amazing to watch, practically a Nature documentary – Merlin would literally escort her out of her prison when I fed the tank, make sure she had gotten a tiny amount of food, and would (again) beat the snot out of her until she retreated back into the rockwork.  He’d then resume guarding the hole to make sure she didn’t leave until the next feeding.

A week after that, Morticia was out of the rocks and swimming near Merlin, but was displaying submissive behavior like crazy.  Submissive clownfish swim on their sides and “twitch” when a dominant fish comes near them and Morticia seemed to suffer an ongoing seizure.

So she’s now a he.  I’m not sure if Morticia was ever a true female or was just leaning that way, but Merlin is now larger than Morticia and is definitely female.  Morticia’s fins have started to heal and (s?)he is now swimming in the open, never more than a couple of inches away from Merlin.

If this had occurred in humans, the authorities would have been called.

* Pssst!  That adorable clown-pie design up there?  It can be purchased and worn.

~ by KBSpangler on January 8, 2010.

4 Responses to “The Trials and Tribulations of Sex Identity”

  1. This post made me so happy, and I cannot figure out why. I’m definitely stealing it for a story someday, though.

  2. Wow. It’s like Finding Nemo meets One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom….

  3. Ah, non-human dating habits. So refreshingly barbaric to us.

    I’d love to own the design on a shirt, but shipping is a pain. Ironically, I could probably hunt down the designer without trouble…

  4. […] has been one note of good news, however.  I was sure that Morty (formerly Morticia) of spousal abuse fame had risen up and slain his mate, as Merlin had gone AWOL over the weekend.  I did a massive water […]

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