ORA announced today that upon DNA testing, it has been confirmed that the fish they have been selling as the Australian Amphiprion rubrocinctus is in fact the Fijian species Amphiprion barberi. How did this happen? In short, it happened because years back, when the all-red clownfish from Fiji was brought into the trade as “Amphiprion rubrocinctus“, at the time, thought of as a disjunct population or simply a misidentification.
By the late 1990’s, some aquarists had gotten wise to the fact that Fijian Red Clownfish were not rubrocinctus, and Joyce Wilkerson’s classic reference “Clownfishes” assigns the Fijian population to the species Amphiprion melanopus, the Cinnamon Clownfish. This is perfectly plausible given that many geographically isolated populations of Cinnamon Clownfish show very unique, although potentially subtle, coloration or pattern deviations (it’s what makes a Solomon Island White Tail Cinnamon different from a New Caledonian Blue Stripe).
It wasn’t until 2008 that the all-red clownfish from Fiji was finally split off into a new species, Amphiprion barberi. Unfortunately, even 5 years later, the trade hasn’t fully caught up. While LiveAquaria.com lists the “Fijian Tomato” clownfish properly as A. barberi, at least one wholesale offering still sells the fish into the trade as “Tomato, Rubrocinctus, Fiji”.
So what’s the lesson here? Simply that provenance, “knowing exactly where your fish came from”, does matter. While aquarists like Kevin Kohen like to point out the benefits of provenance from a standpoint of knowing that you’re supporting a good supply chain and getting “better” fish, from a breeding standpoint the longstanding misidentification of ORA’s Ruby Clownfish could have any number of consequences. As ORA is quick to now suggest, “It is possible that the real A. rubrocinctus has never even been in the US aquarium trade before!”
Possibly, although in recent conversations with Matt Carberry of Sustainable Aquatics, he proposes that in fact their Sustainable Aquatics Ruby Clownfish is legitimately A. rubrocinctus sourced from Northwestern Australia, and not another line of A. barberi masquerading as this rare Australian species. However, even Carberry acknowledges, “I can’t be absolutely certain of the collection location of our A. rubrocinctus either since we weren’t directly involved in their collection or import.”
If Carberry’s provenance is correct, what if some well-meaning aquarist had obtained “A. rubrocintus” from both ORA and SA with the goal of performing a simple outcross to create a new robust line of A. rubrocintus? Unfortunately, in this hypothetical scenario, the aquarist instead would have created a hybrid. With ever-growing concern over future access to wild-caught marine fish, I propose that it’s ever more important that we seek to preserve the natural biodiversity first. Hybrids, which can’t be undone and could be very difficult to recognize, create all sorts of problems for breeders trying to maintain the natural wild type species.
While a hypothetical “rubrocinctus X barberi” hybrid is certainly possibly floating around out there, even far more likely is the possibility that an entire hodgepodge of hobbyist-bred “Tomato-esque” fish consisting of A. barberi, A. frenatus, and A. melanopus could make up what we might think of as captive-bred “Tomato” Clownfish (and could explain captive lines that throw fish that have mixed characteristics). This is not a new issue; this goes back 20-30 years back, people had a really hard time understanding the differences between these species (nevermind the fact that old lines of Ocellaris and Percula are potentially not pure either for exactly the same reasons).
The freshwater trade has it’s examples, and we’re now seeing history repeat itself in the marine aquarium trade. Need I even bring up that with the discovery and description of the Fijian Amphiprion pacificus, every long standing captive-bred A. akallopisis Clownfish line just came into genetic question, just like the A. barberi / A. rubrocinctus conundrum?
I wondered, with ORA’s recent findings, will Sustainable Aquatics need to follow suit and have their own lines genetically tested? Afterall, I am not fully convinced that SA has the real A. rubrocinctus either (why else would I be talking to Matt Carberry about it?). I think it’s fair to say that in principal, Carberry concurs, stating, ““It may be a good opportunity for breeders to obtain the real fish and begin working on this (new) species.”
Of course, the solution to this problem existed from day one – know, with certainty, where your fish came from. Perhaps easier said than done given the way many marine aquarium fish supply chains work, as Dustin Dorton relays, “If you don’t collect the fish yourself there is no way to be 100% sure of where the fish came from.” Indeed, sometimes known geographic variants can be used to flag a wrong provenance, but not necessarily confirm one as being correct.
The only reason ORA had to resort to DNA testing, in my opinion, was that they didn’t have sufficiently solid provenance data on their original broodstock to say, with certainty, where they originated from – DNA was the only option. Meanwhile, while the Fijian all-red clownfish has come into the trade identified as no less than 3 species, it’s always only come from Fiji. So if the supply chain can do better about keeping provenance on fish throughout, this will be a win for everyone (without a doubt, breeders should be wiling to pay more for really solid fish with trustworthy source data…and these examples illustrate exactly why).
I spoke about the importance of provenance at the 2012 MACNA, and here’s a real world example smacking us in the face saying “this is why”. If you knew your “Tomato” clownfish came from Fiji, and you only bred it with other “Tomato” clowns from Fiji, then you knew it was a genetically pure line regardless of what species it was assigned to. While this is not necessarily a concern with someone breeding a wide-ranging species, Clownfish, with their short larval periods, are indeed proving that there could be many more species than we currently recognize (or at the very least, the unique geographic variants that develop should be preserved on their own merit).
A hearty “well-done” goes out to ORA for pursuing this question and making a public announcement about the determination (read more about the Ruby Clownfish name change on the ORA Blog). The best part of this revelation, from a broodstock and genetics standpoint, is that now, should ORA want to reinvigorate their “Ruby Clownfish” line, they know exactly what species they have and, at this time, it’s really easy to go get some fresh wild Fijian Ruby Clown blood to add into their broodstock population.
Let this be a lesson to us all – know where your fish came from and keep that data on hand as you never know when it’ll be highly relevant (eg. when you sell your no longer wanted clownfish pair to an eager breeder).