Pomacentrids, commonly known as damselfishes and anemonefishes, are one of the most abundant and widely-studied families of tropical reef fishes. Small and brightly colored, they are popular aquarium fish. The family Pomacentridae consists of approximately 28 genera and 335 species. They tend to be territorial and can be aggressive, although this is not the case for the non-territorial, free-swimming planktivores or the anemonefishes (Amphiprion and Premnas) that live commensally with anemone hosts. Damselfishes are largely herbivorous, sometimes tending “gardens” of filamentous algae, but may eat tiny invertebrates, or in the case of anemonefishes, anemones and other organisms living symbiotically with anemones. Damselfishes manifest a range of reproductive behaviors, with groups that are polygynous, promiscuous, polyandrous, and monogamous. Anemonefishes are able to change from male to female under certain conditions (see Reproduction: Mating Systems). (Allen, 1998; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Helfman, et al., 1997; Nelson, 1994; Thresher, 1984)

Geographic Range

Pomacentrids are found throughout the world in tropical and warm temperate waters, with the majority of species occurring in the Indo-west and central Pacific region. (Allen, 1998; Helfman, et al., 1997; Nelson, 1994; Thresher, 1984)


Pomacentridae primarily inhabit tropical reef habitats. Some live along steep edges of the reef, and others in sandy sheltered lagoons. In each ocean a few species occupy warm temperate waters, and three estuarine species can sometimes be found in fresh water. Some school in the water column, some live on rocky areas or sea-grass beds, and fishes of the subfamily Amphiprionina (anemonefishes) always dwell in association with sea anemones. A few deep-water species occur at the edge of the shelf at depths below 100 m, but most pomacentrids occupy shallow water between two and 15 meters deep. (Allen, 1998; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Helfman, et al., 1997; Hoese and Moore, 1998; Thresher, 1984; Wheeler, 1985)

Physical Description

Damselfishes, which include the anemonefishes (Amphiprion and Premnas), range from five to 36 cm, with most specimens less than a foot long. Their bodies tend to be high, oval and laterally compressed, with the lateral line interrupted. The single, continuous dorsal fin has eight to 17 spines and 10 to 18 soft rays, the anal fin usually has two spines (occasionally three), and the caudal fin is typically forked. Adults of many species have filamentous extensions on all but the pectoral fins. Ctenoid scales are present on the body, head, and unpaired fin bases. Pomacentrids, with a few exceptions, have one rather than two nostrils on each side, and a small mouth. The palate is toothless, and the floor of the mouth contains a pharyngeal plate (a triangular fused tooth plate). Teeth may be arranged in one or two rows and may be incisorlike, especially in territorial forms that graze on algae, or conical, often seen in forms that live in the water column and catch small organisms (See an illustration of tooth morphology in fish). Coloration of adult damselfishes ranges from brilliant to drab and can vary with mood and time of day. Juveniles, especially in the territorial bottom-dwellers, often possess different, brighter colors than adults of the same species. (Click here to see a fish diagram).

In most pomacentrid groups males and females differ ( sexual dimorphism) externally only in the form of the urogenital papilla, and (except for one species) lack permanent sexual dichromatism. The majority, however, do assume sex-specific colors during spawning. Usually the male, but sometimes the female (and sometimes neither), assumes courtship colors, the pattern and intensity of which vary according not only to species, but also to geographic and perhaps other factors. Adult males tend to be larger than adult females, but the opposite is true for anemonefishes (Amphiprion and Premnas), which are protandrous hermaphrodites: a male can change sex if the dominant female (the largest fish in the group) dies. In these fishes a single individual possesses ovarian as well as testicular tissue. (Allen, 1998; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Helfman, et al., 1997; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Nelson, 1994; Thresher, 1984)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • female larger
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful


Pomacentrid larvae hatch from a clutch of 50 to 2500 eggs, depending on the species. For some the planktonic stage may last only a day while others drift in the open ocean for a few weeks. Juveniles settle in reef areas and their coloration can be quite different from that of adults of the same species. In anemonefishes (Amphiprion and Premnas) one sexually active pair is dominant over a group of juveniles. The young grow slowly in this situation and do not reach sexual maturity until they can replace one of the dominant fish. (Allen, 1998; Hoese and Moore, 1998; Thresher, 1984)


The majority of damselfishes engage in a range of ritualized behavior to attract mates and prepare nest sites. The male, and sometimes the female, begin to groom and tend a rocky surface several days before spawning. He removes invertebrates and algae with his mouth, sometimes allowing certain elements to remain, as is the case with Hypsypops rubicundus, a species that weeds out all but red algae from the site. Courtship activities accompany cultivation of the potential nest. Males may give auditory signals; depending on the stage of courtship, species of Eupomacentrus emit three different types of chirps and grunts. They may also display visual signals, with most damselfish males assuming distinct colors for courtship, and many executing various movements to entice the female to the nest site. Such movements have been described as “leading,” which may include quick bursts of swimming and intermittent hovering in front of the female, “signal-jumping,” or rapid up and down movements, and “dipping,” which is similar to signal-jumping and includes an abrupt descent. (Allen, 1998; Helfman, et al., 1997; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Thresher, 1984)

One group of damselfishes, the anemonefishes (subfamily Amphiprioninae), enter into permanent monogamous pairings and as a rule display a simplified pattern of courtship. Fish in this subfamily are protandrous, a mating system in which male individuals can become female. Ambosexual (neither sperm- nor egg-producing tissues are active) juveniles live on an anemone with a sexually mature male and female pair. If the female dies, her male partner develops into a female to take her place. The largest juvenile grows rapidly and replaces him as the dominant male. (Helfman, et al., 1997; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Thresher, 1984)

Damselfishes appear to spawn year-round, with many groups increasing spawning activity in early summer. In the subtropics spawning is usually limited to the warmer months of the year, but a few spawn in fall or winter. It is common for reef-dwelling damselfishes to spawn in accordance with lunar rhythms, with greatest activity occurring near the full and new moons. Spawning usually takes place in the morning. Synchronous spawning has been observed, and in some species, the higher the number of individuals in a group, the higher the degree of synchrony. Some damselfishes spawn within their permanent territory, while others (planktivorous damselfishes that live in the water column) must seek temporary territories for courtship and spawning. Location of a spawning site may involve solitary males or may be a communal activity in which schools of males, juveniles, and females travel until the males form a colony of territories on an acceptable site. Site choice varies according to species and may include rock ledges, cleaned coral branches, algal turf, empty shells, or the roofs of caves. Males typically prepare the site for spawning and then attract gravid (egg-bearing) females to the nest (see Reproduction: Mating Systems). The male guards the nest from predators and other males while the female lays her eggs in long rows, forming a solid, uniform mass of eggs in a single layer. The eggs are demersal (adhere to the substrate), and clutch size varies from 200 to 2500 eggs depending on the species. (Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Helfman, et al., 1997; Peterson and Warner, 2002; Thresher, 1984)

Polygyny is common: one male may guard the eggs of several females, and damselfish harems have also been observed. Some damselfish are promiscuous, and still others are monogamous. Polyandry has been reported only in an anemonefish, although monogamy is the general rule for anemonefishes (Amphiprion and Premnas). These fish stay paired for at least a year and sometimes for their entire lifetime. They spawn year-round, usually near the full moon. Hypotheses suggest that lunar spawning occurs because of the increased light for nest tending, the greater currents for larvae dispersal, and the relative abundance of spawning invertebrates as a food source. Anemonefish most frequently live in single pairs, along with a group of sexually immature individuals, in association with an anemone (see Reproduction: Mating Systems). Groups containing several males and females may occasionally occur if the fish population density is extremely high. Spawning occurs at the base of the anemone, on a rock surface, or, if the anemone lives on sand, on a surface the fish drag near the anemone. The male clears the nest site by biting at the tentacles of the anemone until they withdraw, and then leads the female there for spawning, during which both fish quiver and bite the nest surface. (Helfman, et al., 1997; Peterson and Warner, 2002; Thresher, 1984)

Male damselfishes (and in very few cases, females) guard their eggs until they hatch. They remove detritus, sand, and fungus-afflicted eggs, fan the eggs, and guard against predators. Most become more aggressive when egg-tending, but this is not the case with anemonefishes (Amphiprion and Premnas). In general fry are left to care for themselves after hatching, but in one Indo-Pacific species, Acanthochromis polyacanthus, parents guard their school of young near the spawning cave for three to six weeks. (Allen, 1998; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Froese, et al., 2003; Helfman, et al., 1997; Thresher, 1984)


Little is known about the lifespan of damselfish, but Eupomacentris spp. live an estimated six to eight years. Some species may live 10 to 12 years in the wild and perhaps 18 years in captivity. (Allen, 1998; Thresher, 1984)


Most pomacentrids, or damselfishes, stake out territories on patches of reef in sheltered areas where they hide, feed and spawn. Males aggressively defend these territories, allowing thick algal growth that provides them a primary food source. Sometimes females have territories near the males. Relations between damselfishes and other fishes are not always agonistic, as juveniles of some species of damselfish clean other fishes. Certain groups of damselfish are not territorial; midwater plankton-feeders may have shelter for retreat or spawning but do not maintain permanent territories, and anemones provide a built-in defense for areas occupied by anemonefishes (Amphiprion and Premnas). Anemonefishes, however, may compete for position in the mating dominance hierarchy, and have been observed striking each other with the pectoral fins. In the anemonefish genus Amphiprion each group contains a male/female pair whose behavioral dominance suppresses the sexual maturation of the smaller males. If one of the dominant fishes dies, the next fish in the hierarchy takes its place (see Reproduction: Mating Systems). (Allen, 1998; Helfman, et al., 1997; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Peterson and Warner, 2002)

Anemonefishes, comprised by the genera Amphiprion and Premnas, have a highly evolved relationship with sea anemones. They remain undisturbed by contact with anemone tentacles that would be fatal to other small fish. A mucous secretion is thought to protect them from the stinging nematocysts. While anemonefishes receive protection living in close proximity with their hosts, the anemones benefit as well. The fish clean the anemone’s upper surface, remove parasites, drop food on the anemone, and chase away butterflyfishes that eat anemones. Waste excretions from the fish may also help symbiotic algae within the anemone to grow. Anemonefishes spend their entire adult lives with a single host. (Allen, 1998; Helfman, et al., 1997)

Communication and Perception

Damselfishes (Pomacentridae) use a variety of visual, olfactory, tactile, and auditory cues to communicate in different situations. During courtship damselfishes respond to the sight of spawning colors and ritualized movements performed by a potential mate (see Reproduction: Mating Systems). Such movements may also signal the location of territory to other males or encourage reproductive synchrony. Anemonefishes (Amphiprion and Premnas) appear to use perception of individual color differences to recognize their monogamous partner. In addition to visual cues, male damselfishes use sound to ward off other males and sometimes as part of courtship and spawning rituals. They may touch and nip females to guide them toward a nest. Chemical cues from some damselfishes may encourage conspecific (individuals of the same species) juveniles to establish nearby territories and may discourage other groups of damselfish from settling. Young anemonefishes use visual and chemical cues when choosing a preferred species of anemone as host. (Helfman, et al., 1997; Myrberg and Fuiman, 2002; Thresher, 1984)

Food Habits

Bottom-dwelling damselfishes feed, for the most part, on algae and small invertebrates. They may tend “gardens” of filamentous algae, or in the case of anemonefishes, feed on the anemone itself or other organisms that are commensal with the anemone. One species of damselfish, Cheiloprion labiatus, or largelipped puller, eats the polyps of live coral. Damselfishes that live in the water column tend to feed on plankton and zooplankton. (Allen, 1998; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Froese, et al., 2003; Helfman, et al., 1997; Moyle and Cech, 2000)


Reef damselfishes gain protection from predators by hiding in coral shelters, anemonefishes by living in close contact with a host anemone, and the free-swimming damselfishes by schooling. Each group’s method of protecting itself applies to its eggs as well, except for midwater damselfishes, which must establish temporary shelter for spawning and egg laying. (Helfman, et al., 1997; Hixon and Webster, 2002)

Ecosystem Roles

Damselfishes are numerous and common on tropical reefs, and as such are an established element of those habitats. Many of them affect the growth of algae on the reef, encouraging algal growth in some areas while using the algae as a food source. The anemonefishes provide some protection and bring in sources of nourishment for their anemone hosts, and some groups of juvenile damselfishes clean other fishes. (Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Helfman, et al., 1997)

Species Used as Host

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Many damselfishes are brilliantly colored and are popular aquarium fish. In aquarium settings they can be aggressive, but are extremely hardy. In some areas bordering the Indian Ocean people eat damselfishes that they catch in traps or with hooks, but in general pomacentrids are not used for food. (Allen, 1998; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1994; Froese, et al., 2003; Hoese and Moore, 1998; Wheeler, 1985)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

No specific information was found concerning any negative impacts to humans.

Conservation Status

Three pomacentrid species, Chromis sanctaehelenae, Stegastes sanctaehelenae, and Stegastes sanctipauli, are listed as vulnerable. (The World Conservation Union, 2002)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Other Comments

There are fossil records of pomacentrids from the lower Tertiary and lower Eocene periods. (Berg, 1958)


Monica Weinheimer (author), Animal Diversity Web.


Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

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Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.


uses sound to communicate


Referring to an animal that lives on or near the bottom of a body of water. Also an aquatic biome consisting of the ocean bottom below the pelagic and coastal zones. Bottom habitats in the very deepest oceans (below 9000 m) are sometimes referred to as the abyssal zone. see also oceanic vent.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


an animal that mainly eats plankton


Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.


having more than one female as a mate at one time


condition of hermaphroditic animals (and plants) in which the male organs and their products appear before the female organs and their products


structure produced by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral polyps (Class Anthozoa). Coral reefs are found in warm, shallow oceans with low nutrient availability. They form the basis for rich communities of other invertebrates, plants, fish, and protists. The polyps live only on the reef surface. Because they depend on symbiotic photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, they cannot live where light does not penetrate.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


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Berg, L. 1958. System Der Rezenten und Fossilen Fischartigen und Fische. Berlin: VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften.

Böhlke, J., C. Chaplin. 1994. Fishes of the Bahamas and Adjacent Tropical Waters. Wynnewood, Pa: Published for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia by Livingston.

Froese, R., D. Pauly, D. Woodland. 2003. "Fish Base" (On-line). FishBase World Wide Web. Accessed August 05, 2003 at http://www.fishbase.org/.

Harmelin-Vivien, M. 2002. Energetics and Fish Diversity on Coral Reefs. Pp. 268 in P Sale, ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Helfman, G., B. Collete, D. Facey. 1997. The Diversity of Fishes. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Hixon, M., M. Webster. 2002. Density Dependence in Reef Fish Populations. Pp. 314 in P Sale, ed. Coral Reef Fishes: Dynamics and Diversity in a Complex Ecosystem. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Hoese, D., R. Moore. 1998. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico: Texas, Louisiana, and adjacent waters – second edition. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

Moyle, P., J. Cech. 2000. Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology – fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Myrberg, A., L. Fuiman. 2002. The Sensory World of Coral Reef Fishes. Pp. 146 in P Sale, ed. Coral Reef Fishes: Dynamics and Diversity in a Complex Ecosystem. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Nelson, J. 1994. Fishes of the World – third edition. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

Peterson, C., R. Warner. 2002. The Ecological Context of Reproductive Behavior. Pp. 103 in P Sale, ed. Coral Reef Fishes: Dynamics and Diversity in a Complex Ecosystem. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

The World Conservation Union, 2002. "IUCN 2002" (On-line). 2002 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed August 02, 2003 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/.

Thresher, R. 1984. Reproduction in Reef Fishes. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publications.

Wheeler, A. 1985. The World Encyclopedia of Fishes - second edition. London: Macdonald.