Swapping Bacteria May Help ‘Nemo’ Fish Cohabitate with Fish-Killing Anemones

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A clownfish peers out of an anemone in a tank at Georgia Aquarium. Anemones usually sting, kill and eat fish, but not clownfish. Georgia Tech researchers found that the microbial colonies in the slime covering clownfish shifted markedly when the nested in an anemone. Could the microbes be putting out chemical messengers that pacify the fish killer? Credit: Georgia Tech / Ben Brumfield

Age-old mystery: How do clownfish thrive in anemones, which sting, kill and eat fish? Scientists are following a new trail of clues to try to answer this conundrum. 

Clownfish wriggle through anemones in a tank at Georgia Aquarium. Anemones usually sting, kill and eat fish, but not clownfish. Georgia Tech researchers found that the microbial colonies in the slime covering clownfish shifted markedly when the nested in an anemone. Could the microbes be putting out chemical messengers that pacify the fish killer? Credit: Georgia Tech / Ben Brumfield

An anemone has stung and killed a fish and is eating it. This is what anemones usually do, but they make a glowing exception for clownfish, who live happily among their venomous tentacles.  Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Gulf of Mexico 2012 Expedition

A clownfish peers out from an anemone in a fish tank at Georgia Aquarium. Anemones usually sting, kill and eat fish, but not clownfish. Georgia Tech researchers found that the microbial colonies in the slime covering clownfish shifted markedly when the nested in an anemone. Could the microbes be putting out chemical messengers that pacify the fish killer? Credit: Georgia Tech / Ben Brumfield