Issue: March 2007
Author: Bob Goemans
An experienced fishkeeper’s look at the various wrasses that he has encountered over the years, as well as some advice for keeping them happy and healthy in the marine aquarium.
The family Labridae (wrasses) consists of approximately 60 genera with about 500 species. It’s the second largest marine fish family, with only that of gobies being larger. Wrasses occur in both tropical and temperate zones, and they vary in size from 2 inches (5 cm) to 6 feet (2 m). Some go through several color variations and sex changes before reaching maturity. In fact, if a dominant male is lost, a female in the harem will assume male characteristics, including its generally more colorful appearance.
Appearances and Requirements
All wrasses have thick lips, often with forward-pointing teeth that can lend a somewhat bucktooth appearance, which helps some when it comes to dining on sea urchins, one of their favorite foods. Nevertheless, some of them prefer other forms of benthic invertebrates, or feed upon other fishes or zooplankton. Some are cleaners that will set up cleaning stations, and their sole food supply is parasites and dead tissue or slime found on willing fish that allow themselves to be cleaned.
Wrasses are mostly long, cigar-shaped (or flattened, cigar-shaped) fish, and only a small portion in this very large family are suited for the aquarium. They swim using only their side pectoral fins, and when a burst of speed is required they use their caudal fin. Wrasses for the aquarium, in my opinion, can be divided into two large groups: those that burrow into the sandbed, and those that don’t. Some wrasses can be very difficult to keep, while others are among the easiest, and they have a wide variety of temperaments.
The burrowing wrasses of interest include those in the Anampses, Coris, Halichoeres, and Macropharyngodon genera. These wrasses hide under the sand at night and/or when frightened. Actually, this mode of sleeping can be somewhat beneficial in sandbed systems, as it stirs up detritus that can then be carried by water currents to the mechanical filter. Some newly introduced specimens can remain buried for hours, sometimes days, until they become comfortable with their environment. Almost all species are diurnal and can be observed during the daytime.
Wrasses in the genera Bodianus, Gomphosus, Hemigymnus, Stethojulis, and Thalassoma sometimes bury themselves if extremely frightened. Usually they sleep or rest under rock shelves, on or under coral branches, in a crevice, or directly on the sand surface. Some very active species will take occasional rest periods during the day.
All wrasses are hearty eaters and will take a wide variety of foodstuffs, including some algae. Most are very fond of worms, crabs, shrimp, urchins, snails, and mollusks. Some are parasite consumers, others are plankton feeders, and yet others eat coral polyps and/or other fish. Therefore, tankmates need to be carefully selected.
Many wrasses are simply too large or need more room then the average aquarium can provide. Some in the juvenile stage are easily frightened by larger tankmates and will spend most of their time buried in sand, slowly starving to death. Some exhibit stunning color changes and/or true sex changes where the female becomes a male, and some species have a supermale form that exhibits a totally different color pattern from the normal male.
If you chose carefully, there are many wrasses that do very well in the fish-only or reef aquarium. I’ve had many different species, but I can only mention a few favorites here, along with some that should be given some forethought if you’re eyeing them for your aquarium.
Choati Leopard Wrasse
My all-time favorite is the Choati leopard wrasse Macropharyngodon choati, which hails from Australia, and is found in lagoons, sheltered reefs, and reef channels where algae and a substrate of sand exists. All wrasses in this genus—usually referred to as leopard wrasses—bury themselves in the sand during the night. They are mostly found over shallow bottom areas composed of rock and coral rubble near sandy surroundings. Some are hardy, peaceful, adapt well to aquarium life, and accept a wide variety of foodstuffs, making them good reef aquarium inhabitants. Others simply waste away no matter how much care is provided.
This wrasse has a temperature range of 73° to 79°F (23° to 26°C) and only attains a length of about 4 inches (10 cm). It has a white colored body with orange blotches of various sizes and shapes. On its operculum is a black spot that is said to change colors from black to dark blue or green, depending upon the fish’s mood. Although I’ve not seen many of these beauties in the trade, those that I have spotted have always had different shaped orange blotches, with no two looking alike.
If there’s a downside, it’s that the Choati leopard wrasse is infrequently seen in the trade, and they have been noted as being difficult to maintain. Fortunately, the one and only I’ve ever kept was a specimen that had already been in the shop’s tank for about 10 days when purchased. I remember it diving into the sandbed when it came time to capture it. It was necessary to place the net into the sand to capture it, yet it survived that traumatic situation and did well in my reef aquarium for the following two years. But then it suddenly disappeared. I never did find out what happened to it, as that tank had a lot of live rock with numerous hiding places. But for two years it a peaceful fish and was fed various meaty foods, such as mysis and brine shrimp, and several kinds of fresh and frozen shredded marine fish and shrimp flesh; it also picked at green algae in the tank.
Even though I had great success with this little beauty, fellow author Tony Vargas reports that in his experience this species has a difficult time adjusting its internal clock to changes in the photoperiod from the wild to its final captive holding tank. He suggests placing the new arrival in a holding tank in a darkish area with no tank lights or sand (barebottom tank) for a couple of days. The next step would be beginning a regular morning-to-evening lighting period for a couple of days. Then it can be placed into the main show tank, where it can dive into the sand when its now-adjusted internal clock tells it darkness is approaching. I think this makes sense, so if you want to try this wrasse, ask how long the shop has had it. If it’s new arrival, put a deposit down on it and ask the shop to hold it for you for a week; or have a quarantine tank set up at home and first care for it as suggested above before placing in your show aquarium.
Another favorite has been the Christmas/ornate wrasse Halichoeres ornatissimus, which hails from the Indo-Pacific (Cocos and Christmas Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean to Japan, Mariana, Marquesas, Tuamotu, and Hawai‘ian Islands). It inhabits coral-rich areas in lagoons and seaward reefs, and prefers sandy areas near rocky/coral rubble. It reaches a length of about 7 inches (17 cm) in the wild and has a temperature range of 75° to 83°F (24° to 28°C) and a natural diet of benthic invertebrates. I’ve had several of these beautiful multicolored wrasses in different reef aquariums over a period of 20 years, and I’ve found them to be hardy, peaceful, and able to adapt to aquarium life. They also take a wide variety of foodstuffs, are resistant to parasitic infections, and are compatible with other wrasses.
Halichoeres ornatissimus requires a meaty diet, including finely chopped fish or shrimp flesh, fortified brine shrimp, mysis, blackworms, and other meaty frozen foods, with two or three feedings per day. This is also a burrowing wrasse, and so a fine-grained substrate of at least 3 inches (7.5 cm) in depth should be provided. Keep in mind these fishes have an appetite for tubeworms.
The Four-, Six-, and Eight-Line Wrasses
And as have many hobbyists, I’ve kept various numbers of the four-line wrasse Pseudocheilinus tetrataenia, six-line wrasse P. hexataenia, and the eight-line wrasse P. octotaenia in many different style reef aquariums.
The four-line wrasse Pseudocheilinus tetrataenia is the smallest, at about 3 inches (7 cm), and hails from the Western Central Pacific (Hawai‘ian and Tuamotu Islands to southern Japan), where it inhabits bottom areas on outer reef regions among coral branches and rubble. It has a temperature range of 75° to 83°F (24° to 28°C) and a natural diet of benthic invertebrates, and therefore it requires a meaty diet like that mentioned above with two to three feedings per day. Unfortunately it’s very secretive and so requires sufficient hiding places. And when it does, it can only be seen as it glides in and out of rock crevices as it searches for a meal.
The six-line wrasse P. hexataenia hails from the Indo-Pacific (Red Sea to South Africa, Tuamotu and Lord Howe Islands, to southern Japan) and is slightly larger than the four-line at about 4 inches (10 cm). It has a similar temperature range and diet in the wild, and the same captive diet as well, however it is not as secretive as the four-line wrasse, and therefore it is always far more visible in the aquarium.
The eight-line wrasse P. octotaenia hails from the Indo-Pacific (East Africa to Hawai‘ian and
More of a Challenge
I’ve had many other favorites, but before I run out of space for this article, let me mention a couple that were interesting but presented a challenge to maintain.
The harlequin tuskfish Choerodon fasciatus is a beautiful orange-striped fish that hails from Western Pacific Ocean (Ryukyu Islands to
My specimen was about 6 inches (15 cm) and was maintained in a 225-gallon aquarium with several large angelfish and tangs. It preferred its own space in the corner areas of the aquarium, where it rested on the bottom substrate while eyeing the traffic of its tankmates. If anything came too near it would chase it, often splashing water onto the floor, but not doing any damage to the tankmate being chased.
My harlequin tuskfish was extremely hardy and was fed a meaty diet, including some small earthworms, which it seemed to like. Unfortunately, one day I had to the hospital for disc surgery and, as luck had it, the aquarium corner spilt halfway down and water was everywhere on the floor when I awoke that morning. I called a local shop friend, and he called several others, and they were all at my home within 45 minutes cleaning and putting all the fish into containers while a neighbor took me to the hospital; I’ll never forget their kindness. As for all the fish, they wound up in various homes, except nobody wanted the tuskfish, so it went into my friend’s shop, where it was eventually sold.
(While I was recovering from my surgery, aquarium husbandry on my two remaining aquariums, a 75 and 125, was accomplished by some of those who I can honestly call fellow hobbyists/real friends.)
Scott’s Fairy Wrasse
One of the most recent wrasses I’ve kept is the Scott’s fairy wrasse Cirrhilabrus scottorum, which hails from the Central to Western Pacific and south to the
Initially my selection was kept in a custom-made 55-gallon tank that had an internal filter built of black plastic into the back area of the tank (not outside the tank). Water would overflow a portion of its inside wall and fall through a mass of Chaetomorpha algae. It would then fall below that to a mechanical filter, then over a shelf of porous biological media, and finally into an adjacent chamber that had a submergible pump for returning its water to the aquarium. The aquarium was built with this chamber attached to its inside back wall so as to utilize some of the overhead light to encourage algae growth (something like an internal refugium, eliminating the need for two separate tanks). I mention this only because this fish turned out to be jumper, and I had to net it out of the back chamber quite often—sometimes twice a day! It could be that it found some small crustaceans in that chamber that made a tasty meal, but it was annoying having to net it out so often.
I transferred it to my 180-gallon reef tank, where it twice proceeded to jump out of the back area of this tank in one day (fortunately I was there on both occasions), so I had to cover all its open areas with egg-crate. That finally resolved that problem, except every once in a while I would hear it bounce off the egg-crate.
This fish requires a meaty diet (such as previously mentioned) with two or three feedings per day. It made a gorgeous addition to that tank and proved to be hardy and peaceful.
Before I close, want to mention a few species that should be given much thought if one is tempted to keep them. The first two are in the Coris genus: Coris aygula and C. gaimard. Both are extremely attractive as juveniles, however C. aygula grows to about 4 feet (120 cm) and C. gaimard attains 16 inches (40 cm)—both too large for most hobbyists’ tanks. And besides, both eat snails, tubeworms, hermit crabs, shrimp, etc., making them anything but reef-safe.
The other wrasses that are very difficult to keep are the cleaner wrasses in the genus Labroides, which are quite pretty but basically only feed upon the parasites and mucus found on other swimming fish. Therefore these cleaners fair poorly in most aquariums unless they are in extremely large systems such as those at a public aquarium.
Research Before Buying
As with any addition to your aquarium, first research its needs. If you can provide for the fish, and it will fit into the already established environment of your system, then go for it. Keep in mind that guesswork or impulse buying is dangerous to the well-being of your already established wet pets…and your sanity!