If the current pace of climate change persists, anemonefish (also known as "clownfish") will find it to be no laughing matter.
A recent study by France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and colleagues indicates that the anemonefish does not have the genetic ability to adapt swiftly enough to climate change.
The findings of the study were published in the November 27 issue of the Ecology Letters journal.
The research was conducted in the lagoons of Kimbe Bay, covering more than a decade. This area is a biodiversity hotspot in Papua New Guinea.
The team established family trees for every single clownfish in the vicinity, by identifying each individual fish and sampling its DNA for over five successive generations.
In this way, they were able to calculate the species’ potential to adapt to habitat changes and renew their population.
Their findings did not hold good news for the clownfish.
"There are no particular genetic variants that contribute more offspring to the next generation. The quality of the host anemone contributes most to the ability of the clownfish to renew its population," said co-author Professor Geoff Jones, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
This is because the species is directly dependent—on average as much as 50 percent—on the quality of the anemone in its environment to survive. Simply put, if high-quality anemones do not exist in the vicinity, the species’ survival will be adversely affected.
"...conservation efforts cannot rely on genetic adaptation to protect clownfish from the effects of climate change. It seems that Nemo won’t be able to save himself." WHOI biologist Simon Thorrold
This is emphasised by Benoit Pujol, an evolutionary geneticist at CNRS: “To expect a clownfish to genetically adapt at a pace which would allow it to persist in the lagoons would be unreasonable, and thus the ability of these fish to remain in the lagoons over time will depend on our ability to maintain the quality of its habitat."