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Supporting sustainable fisheries, conservation and aquaculture research that protects clownfish and anemones


Programs for schools and the general public to learn about marine biology and get involved in citizen science


Creating a collaborative network of aquaculturists breeding clownfish to create a global sustainable aquarium trade


Conservation Ecology and Behaviour

Our research involves both field work (in the marine environment) and within our captive breeding program at Flinders University in South Australia. 


Our main focus of interest is in understanding the symbiotic relationship between clownfish and their sea anemone hosts.  The association between sea anemones and clownfish is a classic example of a mutualistic interaction, where both symbionts appear to benefit from living with each other. However this relationship is complex, and exactly how clownfish manage to live unharmed in the toxic environment of their sea anemone is a question that remains unsolved. Apart from only a few other fish and crustacean species, the venom contained in the nematocysts of anemones is toxic enough to kill other fish that make contact with their tentacles. So, how do clownfish do it?


Our research on anemone toxicity has indicated clownfish have a preference for anemone species that have a moderate level of toxicity and interestingly, the toxicity within symbiotic anemone species may be lower than in anemones that don’t have a fish to help protect them.


How this relationship evolved (and it has been going on for about 10 million years!), how clownfish align themselves to different species of anemone, how clownfish choose a particular anemone, and what anemones are more desirable than others are all important for helping us understand how this system functions and what parameters are necessary for this unique symbiotic relationship to continue to exist in the wild.

Aquaculture and Sustainable Fisheries

During the last decade, we have implemented innovative techniques that have improved the breeding success and survival of captive bred clownfish  for the Australian aquarium market.


This project includes expanding our aquaculture and biotechnology clownfish research to enable increased production and the development of new characteristics which are currently in market demand.


Through improving aquaculture conditions with respect to water quality and nutrition we aim to increase optimal breeding and reproductive output.  In addition, we are conducting research into how to improve the care of clownfish through monitoring their behaviour and determining mechanisms to reduce interactions that have been shown to negatively impact pair bonding and egg laying.

Understanding the genetics of clownfish with a focus on reducing the effects of inbreeding will also allow for a healthier and more vibrant captive bred population.

Using host anemones as bioactive products in anticancer research

Our discoveries associated with anemone toxicities were followed by investigations into the anticancer properties of different species of host anemones.  The remarkable ability of clownfish to live in the toxic environment of anemones led us to suspect that these host anemones might be somehow special. 


We found all clownfish host anemones that we tested have anticancer properties, but the venom from the Magnificent anemone (Heteractis magnifica), also known as the Ritteri anemone, showed strong cytotoxic effects on all cancer cell-lines studied (breast, lung, skin). Given it is a very large anemone that is fairly easy to obtain and keep alive in captivity, it has become our model species.  What was a truly fabulous finding was when we trialled the effect of anemone venom on normal cells and found they didn’t have nearly the same negative response, making this venom a potential candidate for further development toward drug therapeutics.


Determining the mechanism by which anemone venom kills cancer cells has been the next step in our research and through various assays, we have found that venom from the Magnificent anemone kills cancer cells through a natural phenomenon called Apoptosis (programmed cell death), and a key event associated with this mechanism is mitochondrial dysfunction.  Treating cancer with natural pharmaceuticals that work through normal processes rather than non-natural remedies are clearly important to drug developments for the future.

If you would like to support this research program, please donate via the link below

Selected Publications

Karen Burke da Silva, Anita M Nedosyko

In: The Cnidaria, past, present and future. Editors S. Goffredo and Z. Dubinsky. The world of Medusa and her sisters, Springer Publications (2016) 

Anita M. Nedosyko, Jeanne E. Young, John W. Edwards, Karen Burke da Silva

PLoS One, 9(5) pp. 1-8 (2014)

No Place like Home: Can Omics Uncover the Secret behind the Sea Anemone and Anemonefish Symbiotic Relationship?

In: Evolution, Development and Ecology of Anemonefishes: Model Organisms for Marine Science, Vincent Laudet and Tim Ravasi (Eds). Francis and Taylor Group, p. 197-208 (2023)

Hoepner, C., Stewart, Z., Qiao, R., Fobert, E., Prentis, P., Colella, A., Chataway, T., Burke da Silva, K. and Abbott, C.

Toxins 16(2): 85-111. (2024)

Mahnaz Ramezanpour, Karen Burke da Silva, Barbara J. S. Sanderson

Biotechnology Letters, 36(3) pp. 489-495 (2013)

Fobert, E.K., Schubert, K., and Burke da Silva, K

Biology and Ecology 540:7p, 151559 (2021)

da Silva, C., Hoepner, C., Mercader, M., Laudet, V. and Burke da Silva, K.

In: Evolution, Development and Ecology of Anemonefishes: Model Organisms for Marine Science, Vincent Laudet and Tim Ravasi (Eds). Francis and Taylor Group, p.223-235. (2023)

Fobert, E., K., Burke da Silva, K., and Swearer, S.E. 

Biology Letters 15(7): 20190272  (2019)

Inayah Yasir, Jian G Qin

Journal of The World Aquaculture Society, 40(6) pp. 724-734

Inayah Yasir, Jian G Qin

Journal of The Marine Biological Association of The United Kingdom, 87(4) pp. 1025-1033


Clownfish are a popular aquarium species, particularly for young families. While aquariums provide a convenient way for parents and teachers to show children the wonders of the ocean in an educational environment, around 95% of fish are taken from the reef and wild populations of clownfish are under serious threat from overcollection. Our research indicates that only a third of the public are aware aquarium species are harvested from the wild. Our programs provide a great educational opportunity to engage in marine biology whilst, highlighting the conservation issues and empowering families to help protect the Great Barrier Reef through making better informed consumer choices.



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The increased retail demand for clownfish has put a huge strain on wild clownfish populations. Consequently, these populations have declined by 75% on reefs that are frequently harvested. Supporting sustainable fishery initiatives which breed clownfish in captivity for the supply of local aquarium stores can prevent this overcollection. 


It's now quite easy to breed and raise clownfish in captivity, and we currently have three species Amphiprion ocellaris (false clownfish), A. percula (orange clownfish) and Premnas biaculeatus (sumatran clownfish) in our research centre. Our clownfish pairs lay their eggs on a terracota flowerpot and we transfer these to a smaller breeding tank to raise the babies until they are big enough to give to aquarium stores.















We are developing a global clownfish captive-bred program with an identifiable Saving Nemo brand which is focused on eco-marketing and biotechnology, to eliminate the need for wild caught trade. Our focus areas include Indonesia, Philippines, China, Australia and the United States, which are the main countries involved in the wild-harvesting and importing of clownfish. Our logo at participating aquarium stores will tell consumers that by purchasing our captive-bred fish, they are helping to raise much-needed funds that will go directly to increasing our breeding facilities and supporting conservation and aquaculture research for sustainable ornamental fisheries.


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