The real "Finding Nemo"

16 March 2015

Interview with

Max Gray, University of Cambridge

FameLab is an international science communication competition where contestantsClown anemonefish take to the stage and talk to the public about science. During the last month or so, heats have been held in cities across the UK and we've been hearing from the finalists in Cambridgeshire over the past weeks. Kat Arney spoke with regional champion Max Gray, and asked how if felt to be in the finals...

Max - It feels great actually. I'm slightly surprised still. But no, it feels fantastic.

Kat - Now, your winning talk was about Nemo the clownfish. Is this what you actually work on as a researcher?

Max - No, it's not. I do work on the behaviour of fish in coral reefs but not on clownfish. I actually work on cleaner wrasses which are fish that you find throughout the Pacific.

Kat - Well, let's hear your price winning stuff. So, if you could give us your 3 minutes about Nemo, off you go.

Max - Yes, of course. So usually, when I introduce myself to new people, it's not on very larger scale, but what I tell people is that I'm a marine biologist. What I do is I study the behaviour of fish in coral reef communities and their reaction at that point is usually, "Oh! Something like Finding Nemo" which it's not quite. But regardless, that film isn't actually a bad portrayal of what a reef ecosystem looks like. People often follow this up with, it's a question like, "So, how accurate is the film?" And moreover, do the inaccuracies of which there are obviously some in the film, do they annoy me? Which is ridiculous! I mean, it would be like asking any other zoologist whether the inaccuracies in the Lion King would annoy them and as if anybody was going to go to the Savannah and expect to see an immaculately choreographed dance routine performed by giraffes and zebras so no, it doesn't annoy me.

That being said, what I am going to talk about is exactly those inaccuracies in Finding Nemo and why it will be a very different film indeed if it were biologically accurate. The reasons this is the case is because two very interesting details of how clownfish and anemone fish in general behave. First of is something called sequential hermaphroditism which is where the fish start off broadly speaking, sexless or ungendered if you will. And then as they grow and they become the second most dominant individual in their little anemone society, they become male. They develop testes. As they progress, they take over as the biggest most dominant individual in our society, they change sex to become a female.

So, if you remember the film in Finding Nemo, at the beginning of the film, you have a breeding pair of clownfish and they're happy, they've just created a nice large brood of eggs together and unfortunately, what happens next is that the female, the mother fish gets eaten by a barracuda.

So far, so accurate - that does happen.

However, what would've happened next would be that her death would've triggered Nemo's father to undergo a sex change and become a new mother which would make for an interesting film all that possibly more of an art house than a blockbuster flick.

Now, the second thing that's interesting about this fish is something called filial cannibalism and this is the process by which fish or any animal in fact will eat their offspring if something goes wrong and they find themselves in the disadvantaged situation. In the case of clownfish, new parents which they are in the film are even more likely to do this. They do this with alarming regularity. So, what's really likely to have happened in a sort of Finding Nemo situation is that the mother fish will have died, the father/ now, mother fish will have eaten all of the eggs including Nemo which would have produced a very different film indeed with her cannibalistic transsexual parent.

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