New study reveals that 'Finding Nemo' could really happen, sort of

A clownfish just a few days old can travel hundreds of miles, researchers have discovered.

Tane Sinclair-Taylor/University of Exeter
A new study finds that, as babies, clownfish sometimes travel hundreds of kilometers across the open ocean.

A new study shows that the plot of Finding Nemo might have a slim basis in science. Upon young Nemo's capture by Australian scuba divers at the start of the film, his helicopter father Marlin embarks on a days-long search for his son, befriending sharks and escaping the belly of a whale along the way.

While the adult Marlin is the one to swim great distances in the Disney/Pixar film, researchers have found that clownfish sometimes travel hundreds of kilometers across the open ocean. But it's the babies, not fully grown clownfish, that make these journeys.

Steve Simpson of the University of Exeter worked with colleagues from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Sultan Qaboos University, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France to examine the dispersal of Omani clownfish larvae. The team's findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE this week. 

Genetic particularities helped researchers identify which clownfish were locals, which ones were long-distant migrants, and which ones were hybrids. Dr. Simpson led a group of 24 undergraduate and postgraduate students from the University of Edinburgh to the southern coast of Oman, where they clipped small samples from the fins of 400 clownfish before releasing them back into the ocean. They then used these DNA fingerprints to track migration patterns between coral reef systems in the area. 

It turns out that there is a significant exchange of offspring happening between two clownfish populations separated by 400 kilometers of surf beach on the coast. The study found that six percent of fish sampled had migrated the nearly 250 miles to reach the other group.

The clownfish are only about a week old at the time of their journey. After settling down in one coral reef, clownfish are known to spend the rest of their lives in the shelter of host anemones, making the infants' travels appear that much more incredible.

Even Marlin's ride on the East Australian Current with a crew of mellow sea turtles has some truth to it. It appears the clownfish larvae get some help by finding faster flows of water.

"When they arrive at the reef, they are less than a centimeter long, and only a few days old," Simpson said in a press release. "So to travel hundreds of kilometers they must be riding ocean currents to assist their migration."

Researchers also determined that second-generation hybrids existed in both populations, suggesting that travelers found mates in their new neighborhood and reproduced.

"This study is the furthest anyone has tracked the dispersal of coral reef fish, and it demonstrates that distant populations in the marine environment can be well connected," said Simpson.

Simpson said that understanding the relationships of different populations and the dispersal patterns of fish larvae will allow for better protection of sensitive marine populations, because marine scientists can then design coherent networks of protected areas.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to New study reveals that 'Finding Nemo' could really happen, sort of
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today