The orange and white-striped fish made famous by the film Finding Nemo could soon be lost forever due to climate change, scientists warn.
Clownfish live in mutually-beneficial association with sea anemones by attracting fish for them to feed on and removing waste, while receiving a home in return.
But anemones live on coral reefs which are at risk from warming seas and threats such as pollution and human intrusion.
Researchers found this also puts clownfish at risk because they are so picky about where they breed.
Study co-author Dr Serge Planes, a director of research at France’s National Centre of Scientific Research said: “Nemo is at the mercy of a habitat that is degrading more and more every year.”
Dr Planes’ team and another group from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, studied clownfish for 10 years.
The setting for their in-depth research was Kimbe, a tropical island flanked by coral reefs off the east coast of Papua New Guinea. Scientists found clownfish have a “very particular” reproductive cycle involving changing sex, dependent on a stable, benign environment.
Study co-author Professor Geoff Jones, from JCU, said: “For a clownfish, it’s not ‘who’ you are, but ‘where’ you are that matters for your future reproductive success.”
The research teams concluded that clownfish would need to adapt their methods of reproducing as coral reefs die out.
But Dr Planes said: “To expect a clownfish to genetically adapt at a pace which would allow it to persist is unreasonable. Their future depends on our ability to maintain the quality of their habitat.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year warned that with 1.5C of warming, the planet would lose at least 70% of its coral reefs.