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Open Access Research article

Interspecific variation of calls in clownfishes: degree of similarity in closely related species

Orphal Colleye1, Pierre Vandewalle1, Déborah Lanterbecq2, David Lecchini3 and Eric Parmentier1*

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratoire de Morphologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, Université de Liège, Allée de la Chimie 3, 4000 Liège, Belgium

2 Laboratoire de Biologie Marine, Université de Mons-Hainaut, Avenue du Champ de Mars 6, 7000 Mons, Belgium

3 Centre de Recherche Insulaire et Observatoire de l'Environnement (CRIOBE), USR 3278 CNRS-EPHE, 1013 Papetoia Moorea, French Polynesia

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:365  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-365

Published: 19 December 2011



Clownfishes are colorful coral reef fishes living in groups in association with sea anemones throughout the Indo-Pacific Ocean. Within their small societies, size hierarchy determines which fish have access to reproduction. These fishes are also prolific callers whose aggressive sounds seem to play an important role in the social hierarchy. Agonistic interactions being involved in daily behaviour suggest how acoustic communication might play an important role in clownfish group. Sounds were recorded and compared in fourteen clownfish species (some of which have never been recorded before) to evaluate the potential role of acoustic communication as an evolutionary driving force.


Surprisingly, the relationship between fish size and both dominant frequency and pulse duration is not only species-specific; all the specimens of the 14 species are situated on exactly the same slope, which means the size of any Amphiprion can be predicted by both acoustic features. The number of pulses broadly overlaps among species, whereas the pulse period displays the most variation even if it shows overlap among sympatric species. Sound comparisons between three species (A. akallopisos, A. ocellaris and A. frenatus) having different types of teeth and body shape do not show differences neither in the acoustic waveform nor in the power spectrum.


Significant overlap in acoustic features demonstrates that the sound-producing mechanism is highly conservative among species. Differences in the calls of some species are due to size dimorphism and the sound variation might be in this case a by-product. This morphological constraint does not permit a consideration of acoustic communication as the main driving force in the diversification of clownfishes. Moreover, calls are not produced to find mate and consequently are less subject to variations due to partner preference, which restricts the constraints of diversification. Calls are produced to reach and defend the competition to mate access. However, differences in the pulse period between cohabiting species show that, in some case, sounds can help to differentiate the species, to prevent competition between cohabiting species and to promote the diversification of taxa.

Pomacentridae; clownfish; evolution; biogeography; sound production; sympatry; hierarchy; size; frequency