Clown Trigger – the Trained Dog in a Saltwater Tank

The Clown Trigger is one of the most unique and interesting species of fish. It is often described as being a dog in a fish tank because it can have as much personality as your family pooch. Some people even pat them, although depending on their individual personality this could result in a nasty bite.

The Clown Trigger is found in the tropical coastal waters of Africa, the Indo-Pacific region, and in the Red Sea, ranging in depth from one to seventy-five metres. It lives mostly in coral reefs and can grow up to fifty centimetres long. Its unique colouration and amazing personality is what drives so many people to keep this fish as a pet.

The Clown Trigger is a scaleless leathery fish related to a Leather Jacket. The colour pattern of an adult (dark body with large white spots on its belly and fine black spots on a yellow background up top) is distinctly different to that of a juvenile (small white spots throughout its body with only a small yellow area around its dorsal fin), but both are equally beautiful. Adults are a solitary species often seen swimming openly through the water. Juveniles are more secretive and often live in small caves.

When nesting, the Clown Trigger will become extremely protective, often attacking drivers that come too close. They have been known to repeatedly bite divers even drawing, blood through clothing.

When threatened by a larger fish the Trigger will stand upright making it an awkward shape to eat and also flare out its spines. This is one reason why you should always use a double bag to transport them. It can also use its spines to wedge itself into nooks and crannies of the reef, injecting the spines into rock. It’s common for a Trigger to have unusual sleeping location courtesy of this ability, making it less likely to be spotted by a predator.

This is a very robust fish which is very easy to keep. It is less prone to developing white spot than some other coral reef fish. If white spot develops dropping the salinity to 1.018 can remedy it, without need for medication.

When keeping a Clown Trigger you never know what you are going to get as they can become very aggressive. A young Clown Trigger can be compatible with most fish. However, as it matures, its personality can become quite varied. A Clown Triggers which grows up in a community reef aquarium could become a large docile fish, living in harmony with the other tank inhabitants. On the other hand, it could become the tank psychopath and attack everything including your fish, your corals, your cat and even you.

While you can never predict how the personality of your Trigger will develop, there is a better chance of producing a calmer fish by introducing it to your tank at a younger age, keeping it with other placid fish and not feeding it live food. Ideally, this fish should be fed a variety of high quality foods including pellets and frozen foods.

Allowing greater intervals of time between feeding, feeding live food and progressively increasing the size of what you’re feeding will have the opposite effect, producing a fish so aggressive, it could easily kill a small shark. In fact, Triggers are more aggressive towards larger creatures like sharks and rays, often nipping them, so be careful when mixing these species. It’s also not a good idea to keep Triggers with invertebrates and snails, as these form a large part of their natural diet.

In the wild the Clown Trigger’s strong jaws are used to crush sea urchins, crustaceans and hard-shelled molluscs. In your aquarium they could be used to bite through airline or a power chord, so make sure you have a safety switch. They could also bite your hand, tearing your flesh which is very painful so be wary. (This is another reason to keep them in a double bag when moving, as they may chew through just one.)

While they can be a handful, Triggers have amazing personalities that make them well worth the trouble. They are one of the most intelligent fish you will come across and often engage in behaviours which appear to be purely for their own entertainment. They also will do many things to get your attention or to get fed. This author could relate many weird and wonderful stories involving Triggers. One involves a Trigger stacking up rocks, piece by piece, into a finely balanced tower. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic it appeared quite proud of its work, pausing to admire the structure after each successfully balanced rock and even defending its tower from other fish. When the tower had finally toppled over, the Trigger would start again making it higher each time. (In the same vein, a Trigger in a coral tank will often relocate the corals by picking them up and dropping them where ever it chooses.)

At other times I have seen Triggers happy to engage in games like follow your finger or fetch. They love to chase your finger along the glass of the tank. At times I have repeatedly dropped a small coloured object into the tank, only to see the Trigger swim down, pick them up and spit them out of the water.

It is common for a Trigger to do anything to get your attention. They may make loud banging sounds by crashing rocks into the glass or other rocks, spit and splash large amounts of water out of the tank, bite the front glass of the tank, even to the point where they scratch it, or swim upside down throwing themselves like crazy against the glass of the aquarium (possibly also because they are enjoying the strange sensation of begin upside down). If you are worried, simply make sure you have a set of lids on the tank. This will prevent them spiting water into the light fittings and onto the floor and from jumping out.

Triggers can also be easily be taught to jump out of the tank for food. Once your Trigger is comfortable with being hand fed, you can start slowly raising the food out of the water and sure enough the fish will swim up to get it. Before you know it the fish will be literally leaping out of the water with pin point accuracy in order to seize the food out of your hand. With time, they will even leap out of the tank so as to land on the floor (if not for your trusted net). Just make sure to position the food on the right angle, and of course to catch them each time.

The most infamous trigger this author has kept was a little fellow we named Nugget, who did not mind being picked him up out of the water to feed. I could even place him in a tin of fish food and watch him try to eat the food while laying in the tin. I would place him back in the water after twenty seconds, but he would always appear keen to do it again, coming straight back up to the place from which I removed him.

A different type of Trigger that you should be aware of is the Undulate trigger. This is a far shyer species which spends more time in hiding, making it more difficult to be aware of its actions. If a Clown Trigger attacks another fish it will be very clear that it was the Clown Trigger that was responsible. However, the with Undulate Trigger it will often appear placid and harmless when you are around but will systematically kill off your other fish. The Undulate is much less predictable than a Clown Trigger and possibly should not be kept with other fish. Their colouration is not as striking as that of the Clown Trigger. They are a green looking fish with pale yellow stripes.
The Clown Trigger really is a fantastic and fascinating fish and an amazing fish to keep. Its beautiful colour and amazing personality makes this it one fish that you will never regret buying, and definitely never forget.

To find out more about reef or marine aquariums check out my DVD at http://www.exclusivefishfilms.com

Good luck and enjoy,

Paul Talbot

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