In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Finding Nemo, here’s the real-life creatures that inspired Pixar’s animated blockbuster
Released in 2003, Finding Nemo was a huge cinematic success, raking in more than $1 billion at the global box office as adults and children alike followed the mission of Marlin the clownfish in his attempt to find his lost son, Nemo.
During their epic adventure, they encounter a huge variety of marine life, brilliantly voiced by an equally enormous cast-list – but the loveable animated characters are all based on real sea creatures, ranging from the tiniest of fish to the largest predatory shark in the world.
As Finding Nemo celebrates its 20th anniversary, let’s take a look at some of the main characters, and the creatures that inspired them.
- New seahorse species discovered in Papua New Guinea
- Life Returns – coral reef restoration in Mustique
- Eye to eye: seeing underwater
- The nine species of hammerhead shark
- The heart of the Coral Triangle
‘Nemo’ – clownfish
The lead character of the film, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould) and his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks) and mother, Coral (Elizabeth Perkins) are clownfish – ocellaris clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) to be more precise, sometimes called the false percula clownfish or common clownfish.
There are 30 species of clownfish – also called anemonefish, for the anemones in which they live – which are found in the sheltered reefs and lagoons of warm waters, including the Red Sea, Indian and Pacific Oceans, throughout south-east Asia and the Coral Triangle, and, of course, Nemo’s home, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The host anemone and its clownfish have a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship – the anemone protects the clownfish from predators, and provides nutrients to the clownfish in the form of undigested food. In turn, the clownfish protects the anemone from its own predators, and its bright colouring may lure smaller fish into the anemone where they are killed by its venomous nematocysts (stinging cells).
Clownfish are protected from the anemone’s sting by a thick layer of mucus, although there is no definitive answer as to how this mucus is acquired – some studies suggest clownfish are born with the protective mucus, others that it is acquired by the clownfish repeatedly rubbing itself against the anemone’s tentacles. The answer is probably a bit of both.
All clownfish are born male, but will spontaneously change sex if the dominant female of the group dies, and they are fierce defenders of their nest, especially during reproduction.
Just like in Finding Nemo, where Marlin devotedly looks after the clownfish eggs before the barracuda attacks the anemone, real male clownfish do the same, guarding eggs until they hatch.
‘Dory’ – blue tang
The bubbly character of Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) plays a major role in the cast of Finding Nemo – and her own 2016 sequel, Finding Dory – and is based on the real-life Paracanthurus hepatus, known variously as the Pacific blue tang, regal blue tang, royal blue tang and – rather bizarrely – the blue hippo tang.
The blue tang is a small fish, reaching up to 30cm in length, and is native to the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific region. They are actually born bright yellow in colour, transitioning gradually to blue as they mature, and can become even darker when they are threatened.
Members of the Acanthuridae family to which Paracanthurus hepatus belongs are also known as ‘surgeonfish’ or ‘doctorfish’ – and for very good reason. Despite Dory’s exuberant and forgetful nature, a real blue tang can pose a threat when it is in danger, as it raises a pair of razor-sharp, venomous spines on either side of its tail which can cause serious injuries to humans.
Blue tangs are omnivores, using their small, sharp teeth to eat plankton or remove algae from the coral reef. This makes the species vital to the coral reef ecosystem, as an overabundance of algae can suffocate and kill the coral overgrows, which could have a devastating impact on the marine food chain.
‘Bruce’ – great white shark
Adult great whites average approximately 4.5m (15ft) in length and 750kg (1,650lbs) in weight. Females are substantially larger than males, with the largest on record measuring in at a whopping 6.1m (20ft) and weighing some 2 metric tonnes (4,400lbs).
Great whites are cool water fish, preferring a range of temperatures between 12-24 degrees, and are found in waters across the globe, with large populations encountered in South Africa and the Pacific coast of Mexico – there is even a sizeable population in the Mediterranean.
Although they were thought for many years to be a coastal predator, research and tracking over the last few decades have revealed that they migrate vast distances across the open ocean, occasionally clocking at depths of more than 1,200m (3,900ft)
They are known as opportunistic predators, feeding on both the ocean’s surface and near the seafloor, and help to keep the populations of their prey – such as seals and sea lions – in balance. They also prey on large fish (definitely food, not friends), dolphins, and other sharks.
With powerful tails that can propel them at speeds of more than 15 miles per hour (25 kph), great white sharks are highly adapted predators.
‘Crush’ – green turtle
It is the only herbivorous sea turtle, feeding mostly on seagrass and algae, which turns their body fat green, for which they are named – rather than their shell, which is a mottled brown and grey.
Green turtles are found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world and migrate long distances between the beaches that they were hatched on and their feeding grounds. Females will return to the same beach that they hatched on to lay their eggs, swimming many thousands of miles in the process.
They are thought to live between 60-70 years old and reach up to 1.5m (5ft) in total length, although most adults average about 1m (3.3ft).
Green turtles were almost hunted to extinction in some locations for their eggs, shells, and as a valuable source of meat; human development has also resulted in the loss of valuable nesting sites.
Many countries now have laws in place to protect the turtles and the beaches where they lay their eggs, but they remain classed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
‘Mr Ray’ – spotted eagle ray
Mr Ray (Bob Peterson) is a white-spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus ocellatus), the second-largest species of eagle ray after the incredibly rare ornate eagle ray, with wingspans that can reach up to 3m (11ft) with a length of 5m (16ft) from the tip of their snout to the end of their tail.
When Finding Nemo was released in 2003, Mr Ray would just have been a ‘spotted eagle ray’ as until 2014, the three distinct species identified today (spotted eagle ray, white-spotted eagle ray and Pacific white-spotted eagle ray) were all lumped under one classification umbrella.
All three species inhabit tropical waters, although the white-spotted version found on the Great Barrier Reef is found only in the Indo-Pacific region. They generally live in coastal areas, and can reach depths of more than 60m (196ft).
They have plate-like teeth, which they use to crush their prey, which includes clams, oysters, sea urchins and shrimp, and have been seen to jump spectacularly high out of the water.
‘Gill’ – Moorish idol
Gill, voiced by Willem Dafoe is a Moorish idol (Zanclus cornutus), a small, boldly-coloured common reef fish which can grow up to a maximum length of 23cm.
Moorish idols are found in clear and murky subtropical waters, widely distributed throughout the Indo-Pacific, including Micronesia, Hawaii and southern Japan. They are also found along the coast of East Africa and in the eastern Pacific from California to Peru
Moorish idols mate for life and are often found swimming in pairs, although they sometimes gather in huge schools. They feed mainly on encrusted life, such as sponges, tunicates (sea squirts) and other invertebrates, and algae.
‘Bubbles’ – Yellow tang
Yellow tangs (Zebrasoma flavescens) eat algae and small invertebrates, often performing a cleaning service for turtles removing algae from their shells. Like Dory the blue tang, yellow tangs are also surgeonfish, and possess a sharp caudal spine used as a defence against predators.
Also like their distant blue tang relatives, the yellow tang’s role in clearing away algae from coral is vital in maintaining the marine life food chain.
‘Pearl’ – flapjack octopus
Nemo’s classmate, Pearl, voiced by Erica Beck, is a flapjack octopus (Opisthoteuthis californiana), so adorable in appearance that scientists had at one point considered naming it adorabilis. They are relatives of the equally adorable ‘dumbo’ octopus.
Flapjack octopuses have little fins behind their eyes, making it look like they have ‘ears’. Their eight arms are linked together like webbed feet, giving them the appearance of an umbrella when they are floating in the water column and a pancake when resting on the ocean floor. It also makes them look like they have hooks or claws around the skirt, but these are, in reality, as soft as the rest of their bodies.
‘Adorabilis’ is found throughout the northern Pacific, usually in deeper waters. It eats worms and other small invertebrates; and crustaceans such as isopods, copepods and small shrimp, finding its prey by probing the seafloor with small sucker discs and cirri – the small hair-like strands that line the octopus’ arms – and flapping its arms to stir sediment to find prey hidden in the mud. Once the prey is trapped, the octopus moves it to its mouth using its suckers to hold it in place.
‘Bloat’ – porcupine pufferfish
Bloat, played by Brad Garrett, is often referred to as a porcupine pufferfish, although just ‘porcupinefish’ might be more accurate. Porcupinefish and pufferfish are all capable of inflating their bodies under stress and are consequently all lumped together under the same term ‘pufferfish’ although as porcupinefish (Diodontidae) and ‘true’ pufferfish (Tetraodontidae) – are actually different families of fish.
Which species of porcupinefish Bloat actually is, is difficult to determine, but either the spot-fin porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix) or long-spine porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus) would be one of the closest matches.
Porcupinefish (and puffers) are common to tropical and sub-tropical waters around the world, inhabiting a wide variety of habitats from coral reefs to the muddy sea floor. Depending on species, they typically mature to 40-50cm in length, although larger specimens have been recorded.
Covered in long spines which lie flat against its body, the ‘porcupine pufferfish’ can swallow water when threatened, allowing water to inflate its body which raises the spines. The spines are not venomous, but porcupinefish feed on hard-shelled prey, so are equipped with strong jaws and beak-like teeth. Some species contain a poison known as tetrodotoxin, making them deadly to predators – including humans – if eaten.
‘Sheldon’ – Seahorse
The character of Sheldon the ‘H2O intolerant’ (voiced by Erik Per Sullivan) is a seahorse, a member of the genus Hippocampus, a name derived from the Ancient Greek ‘hippos’, meaning ‘horse’ and ‘kampos’, meaning sea monster, or animal – although a later translation of the Greek is accepted as ‘horse caterpillar’. There are at least 46 different species that have so far been identified.
Seahorses have incredible eyesight – each eye can move independently on either side of their head – meaning that a seahorse can look forwards and backwards at the same time.
They prefer calm, shallow waters and thrive in seagrass beds, mangroves, estuaries and coral reefs in tropical and temperate waters across the world.
During pregnancy, the female seahorse will transfer her eggs to the male, which he self-fertilises in his pouch and eventually gives birth to.
Seahorses don’t have teeth or a stomach, so their digestive system works in a unique way. They are required to feast constantly on a diet of planktonic copepods and fish to survive.
‘Peach’ – Starfish
Peach (Allison Janney) is a starfish – but importantly, starfish are not actually fish. Starfish are a class of echinoderms known, a group of marine invertebrates which also includes brittle stars, sea urchins, sand dollars and sea cucumbers.
Starfish live in all the world’s oceans and can tolerate a wide range of climates and temperatures, making them one of the most well-adapted groups of animals known to science. They are found from the surface of the water in shallow rock pools to the deepest parts of the ocean.
With no brain or blood, starfish use filtered seawater to pump nutrients through their nervous system. They feed on clams, shells and mussels, capturing prey using tiny suction cups.
When they eat, their stomachs are ‘everted’ from their mouths in order to digest their prey, and re-enter the starfish’s body once it’s finished eating.