I don’t know about you, but I am always attracted to the marine fish species with the most fabulous coloration and the feistiest personalities! This makes it no wonder that I love, love, love the Clown Triggerfish (balistoides conspicillum.)
With its rather dramatic colors and quirky personality, the Clown Triggerfish is a highly sought-after prize in the marine fish keeping hobby. It is, however, one of the most potentially aggressive of the 40 species in the Triggerfish family and needs care that takes this into account. Get it wrong and there will be aquarium carnage!
Get it right, however, you can with the help of this complete guide to caring for your Clown Triggerfish, and you will have an absolutely stunning fish that will the centerpiece of any great marine aquarium. So without further ado, shall we get started?
Characteristics and Care
The first thing anyone notices about the Clown Triggerfish is its magnificent coloration of black, white, and yellow and the patterns that they create. The second would be its personality as it is certainly a fish full of it! Quirky, aggressive, territorial, menacing, shy, and friendly are all words used to describe it.
In relation to care, potential owners of this fish need to think very hard before keeping one. They need very large aquariums, specific tank mates, and monitoring quite closely. They also need to be kept well fed with large amounts of food to help prevent them from going rogue.
Below are some basic care requirements for you to peruse before we get into specifics:
- Scientific name: Balistoides Conspicillum
- Family: Balistidae
- Common names: Balista clown, Big spotted triggerfish
- Origin: Australia, Indonesia, Sumatra
- Lifespan: 8 plus years
- Sociability: Aggressive
- Growth: Up to 1 foot 8 inches
- Diet: Carnivore
- Minimum tank size: 300 gallons
- Tank level: All
- Care level: Easy
- Water parameters: 72-78℉ (22-26℃), dKH 8-12, pH 8.1-8.4, sg 1.020-1.025
- Breeding: Nest builder
- Cost: $100 upwards
Clown Triggerfish Colour and Appearance
The Clown Triggerfish is a large species with a stocky appearance, oval shaping, and a laterally compressed body. They have a small mouth, strong jaws and teeth, and independently moving eyes which are set high on their large heads.
The body of the Clown Triggerfish is covered in thick, bony scales which resemble body armor and make this fish look ready for battle. This appearance is backed up by its three spines which are situated on the dorsal fin. These are erected when the Clown Triggerfish feels threatened or needs to lock itself into a crevice. The action of the spines appearing resembles a trigger action, hence the name Triggerfish.
Colour wise the Clown Triggerfish has a black background with the bottom half of the fish being covered in large white, almost round spots. The area around the dorsal fin has yellowish sinuosities which overall have a leopard like charm. Round the mouth is a ring of yellow outlined in white which gave this species of Triggerfish its clown title. A white stripe rides the nose as well as underlining the second dorsal and anal fin.
Like other Triggerfish species, the Clown has incredibly sharp teeth in a very strong jaw. There are eight sharp fangs in the front of the mouth with six more sitting behind them. They also have molar-like grinding teeth which are located in the throat.
Clown Triggerfish Habitat
The Clown Triggerfish has a large area of natural habitat ranging from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific Ocean and Western Atlantic. They can be found off the coast of places such as Florida, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Samoa, South Africa, Indonesia, Southern Japan, Eastern Australia, and Eastern Africa.
Adult Clown Triggerfish are most commonly found around external reef slopes and steep drop-offs in clear waters 5-75 meters deep. They will be close to where shellfish and invertebrates are located. Juveniles of the species are more likely to be hiding in caves or overhangs at around 20 meters deep. They will hang out in these more private spots until they are about 15-20 centimeters long.
Typically the Clown Triggerfish has few natural predators other than a few larger species of fish and sharks. This does not mean, however, that they can be found in abundance as they cannot. Sightings of these fish by divers is not a common occurrence with researchers believing that in certain areas numbers are limited. How limited we do not know as the IUCN has not yet investigated them.
Levels of predation are believed to be low due to the Clown Triggerfish coloration. Viewed from below the white spotted pattern blends in with the surface water pattern and from above it blends with the corals below. Clown Triggerfish are also very hard to remove from their hiding places by predators due to their ability to lock their fins into crevices.
In their natural habitat Clown Triggerfish feed upon a diet of crabs, other crustaceans, mollusks, tunicates, and sea urchins. They flip sea urchins onto their stomachs before eating in order to attack the least spine covered parts. Whilst searching for food they will take sand into their mouths and spit it out through their gills in an attempt to uncover prey. Spitting water is also a tactic used by Clown Triggerfish to unsettle the sand and uncover lunch!
The behavior of the clown triggerfish
The Clown Triggerfish is a diurnal species meaning they are active through the day and rest at night. Resting time is usually spent ‘locked’ in a crevice where they cannot be predated upon. Through the day they swim in open waters at varying depths which they will also do in the home aquarium.
Clown Triggerfish personality and levels of aggression vary greatly with some keepers saying they are like loyal puppies and friendly whilst others state they are shy but with a tendency to charge and attack other fish and keepers. This species is known to bite the hand that feeds them! They are also a solitary and very territorial species that will certainly nip at the fins of any smaller fish that swims into their domain. Depending on the level of aggression they may even kill them.
As with many other species in the animal kingdom Clown Triggerfish often do not start out aggressive with many juveniles making really good community fish. However, by the time they reach 5-6 inches in length, they become braver and show no fear of anything. This does not mean that at this size they will instantly become bullies, that can take months to happen if it does. Level of aggression in the Clown Triggerfish is very difficult to call.
Surprisingly, for an aggressive predatory species, the Clown Triggerfish cannot swim with any real speed. They do, however, have great maneuverability and can swim both backward and forwards. Hovering is a favorite activity for Clown Triggerfish, especially over reefs.
When feeling threatened or resting the Clown Triggerfish will retreat into spaces where it can hook itself in place securely by using the spines on its dorsal fin and also its jaw. Believe it or not, the Clown Triggerfish jaw is strong enough for it to grasp the edge of a crevice and stay put. They will also produce a grunting sound to warn predators off, which is created using vibrations of their air bladder.
In the home aquarium, Clown Triggerfish are renowned for reorganizing their ornaments, rocks, and plants to their liking. They will also sift the sand and blow water into it looking for food. This means if a tidy and well-scaped aquarium is your thing, then a Clown Triggerfish may not be for you!
Clown Triggerfish Care
Relatively speaking the Clown Triggerfish is easy to care for due to it being a hardy fish that rarely succumb to diseases and parasites and that it is unlikely to be preyed upon. They do, however, need monitoring for aggression, the correct setup, entertaining, and a good healthy feeding regime.
Clown Triggerfish are not reef safe as they will feed on hard corals, invertebrates and other marine reef life. Instead, they need aquariums that are equipped with lots of suitably sized shelters for them to retreat into that are securely fixed down. Remember, Clown Triggerfish have a habit of rearranging their space and you do not want rocks etcetera toppling and landing on them or other occupants of your aquarium.
It is also recommended that you add a selection of small rubble and possibly a handful of live ghost shrimp to your aquarium. This will help keep your Clown Triggerfish entertained and give them something to hunt. The aim of this is to distract them from predatory behavior with your other fish.
There are no specialist lighting requirements for Clown Triggerfish other than to remember they rest at night so the aquarium should not be lit up 24 hours a day. Water parameters should be kept at approximately 72-78℉ (22-26℃), dKH 8-12, pH8.1-8.4, and sg 1.020-1.25 although as they are hardy fish, they will tolerate some fluctuation. Water movement is also not of import to the Clown Triggerfish so can be matched with species in your aquarium that are less forgiving of non-perfect surroundings.
As juvenile Clown Triggerfish are more likely to behave in a community, it is a good idea to add a young specimen to your aquarium. However, you need to be aware that as they can change so much in personality and aggression as they grow you may need to remove it at some point. Having a backup plan for where a rogue Clown Triggerfish can go is a good idea. Also, take note that most Clown Triggerfish available to purchase have come straight from the ocean and that juveniles do not always fare well after the capture and shipping process.
When adding a Clown Triggerfish to your aquarium it is always a good idea for them to be the last addition. This, hopefully, will stop them from claiming territory and showing territorial aggression. You should also only add one as multiples will fight. A slow drip acclimatization for around an hour is recommended. Also always keep them well fed during their first few days as this too may stave off their predatory nature.
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Frequent feeding all round will keep your Clown Triggerfish happy and mean that they are less likely to be predatory. It is suggested that they are fed three times a day with a suitable healthy diet. Whether you feed live foods to a Clown Triggerfish is a personal preference but some keepers advise against doing so. The reason for this is that they feel it only encourages them to be predatory.
When feeding or performing tank maintenance it is not recommended that you put your hands in the aquarium. Clown Triggerfish are not picky when it comes to displaying their aggressiveness and many a keeper has learned this the hard way with stitches and scars. The Clown Triggerfish teeth really are as sharp as needles.
Rather than hand feeding, it is suggested that you target feed by using a turkey baster. This means you can direct the food at your Clown Triggerfish slowly so that he/she can capture it and you can avoid food laying on the bottom of aquarium causing nitrates and phosphates to rise.
Clown Triggerfish Diet
The Clown Triggerfish is a carnivorous species with a healthy appetite meaning they will eat virtually anything they are offered. You should, however, ensure that their diet is varied with foods such as krill, shrimp, scallops, small fish, cod, brine shrimp, clams on the half shell, and mollusks being offered.
Please note clams on the half shell are vital to a Clown Triggerfish diet as they need hard foods that will help keep their teeth from overgrowing. Triggerfish teeth grow throughout their lives and lack of hard food may result in them having to be manually ground down. This experience is not pleasant for the fish that will more than likely suffer from a huge amount of stress.
It is also recommended that you soak any foods given in vitamins to ensure that your Clown Triggerfish remains healthy. An additional garlic supplement will also help repel external parasites and boost your fishes immunity levels.
Breeding Clown Triggerfish
Clown Triggerfish become sexually mature at around one-year-old. It is, however, impossible to tell externally at any age what sex they are. This means if you were planning to try to breed them, that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for you to purchase the correct grouping needed for spawning. Add this to the fact that spawning groups range in size and that it would need a humongous aquarium to house more than one successfully and it becomes virtually pointless to even try!
In their natural habitat Clown Triggerfish will migrate to breeding grounds to spawn. When they do, this is governed by the moon and tides. Once there, the male will pick a territory and actively court the females who will then decide which male they wish to breed with.
Usually, there will be several females to each male, roughly at a ratio of 5 to 1. The female is the one who will build the nest before she drops her eggs into a crater within it. The male will then instantly fertilize the eggs and begin guard duty. Clown Triggerfish are especially aggressive during this time and have even been known to chase off and attack divers that have ventured too close to the nests.
During the eight days that it takes the eggs to hatch the female will blow water over them in order to ensure that they are well oxygenated. The female will also take care of the newly born fry which will stay hidden in deeper waters until they are 15-20 centimeters in length.
Appearance wise juveniles lack the yellow marking around the mouth and tend to have more white spots which will fade as they mature. They are rarely spotted by divers in their natural habitat as they tend to stay hidden within caves and overhangs.
It will come as no surprise that Clown Triggerfish are not the easiest of species to find compatible tank mates for. Due to their predatory and aggressive nature, many species are just not suited or able to defend themselves against them. However, with care, there are some species that will hold their own.
Firstly, you should avoid any fish that is smaller than the Clown Triggerfish and that could fit in their mouths. This is not always a static rule, however, as Clown Triggerfish are known for their ability to tear larger fish to pieces. This is especially true if those larger fish are peaceful in nature and leads us to our second point.
Secondly, you should avoid any species of fish that are peaceful regardless of their size. Clown Triggerfish pair better with large, aggressive, and belligerent species that will be able to hold their own. Suggestions for possible tankmates include Dampiera Dottyback, Orange-lined Triggerfish, large Wrasse, large Groupers, Large Angelfish, Sohal/Lined Surgeonfish, LargeFoxface Rabbitfish and possibly other aggressive Triggerfish. Please note, Clown Triggerfish should not be housed with other Clown Triggerfish.
Invertebrates, crustaceans, sea urchins, sea stars, and mollusks it pretty much goes without saying are not suitable tank mates for Clown Triggerfish who will see them as a tasty snack. You may, however, get away with softer corals although you will need to keep an eye on them as some Clown Triggerfish have been known to take a chunk.
If your Clown Triggerfish becomes ill then read our complete guide to diagnosing and treating most Tropical Fish Diseases.
It is a fact that the Clown Triggerfish requires some careful consideration and research, which I hope we have helped with before you go out and purchase one. Tank mates must be carefully chosen and the aquarium which will house them be large enough for them to grow into. They will also require a substantial amount of monitoring to ensure they don’t go rogue.
However, if you can provide all the above, there is also no doubting that the Clown Triggerfish has an incredible combination of color, pattern, and charisma. They are a true wonder of the deep that any fish keeper would aspire to and be proud to own. I, for one, am certainly going to look to build a marine aquarium around this magnificent specimen and I’ll bet I’m not the only one!