Wrasses are arguably among the most sought after animals within the aquarium industry. The wrasse family, Labridae, forms the second largest groupings of fish documented. Within this family, there are almost 60 genera, and upwards of 500 documented species with new tropical and temperate species being documented every year. While being diverse, wrasses are also intelligent and personable animals. For the most part, they are colorful, hardy, and many are very well suited for aquarium life.

In this series of articles, I would like to help elucidate the wrasse family, and help you make educated and satisfying choices for your home aquarium.

General Notes on Morphology and Husbandry

Wrasses are characterized by their cigar shaped bodies, and use of their pectoral fins for locomotion. They are excellent swimmers and can easily handle the flow rates within even the most turbulent reef aquarium but can be prone to jumping. Be very wary when considering a wrasse for your tank and may warrant a tight fitting lid.

Wrasses are primarily carnivores and exhibit a wide range of feeding behaviors. While some are planktivores, many others hunt among the rocks for benthic crustaceans, worms and small fish. Still others form obligatory symbioses with other reef animals as cleaners, establishing cleaning stations, and controlling ectoparasite populations along the reef.

As most wrasses are generalist carnivores, many are easily weaned unto traditional aquarium fare. Almost all wrasses that are planktivores or benthic hunters will appreciate a fortified mix of mysis shrimp, mussels, and other fresh seafoods. Wrasses that cannot be weaned unto these foods (such as cleaner wrasses of the genus Labroides) should be avoided unless their specialized diet can be accommodated.

Most wrasses are what is known as protogynous hermaphrodites. Depending on social interactions, wrasses that are born as female can and will turn to male. However, wrasses born as males will remain as a sexually inactive drone for their entire lives. This change is mediated through a hierarchical social structure that divides aggression and dominance through a complex pecking order. As many wrasses are sexually dimorphic, this change to sexually active male status can be dramatic in the home aquarium.

In this article, I’d like to talk about wrasses within the Cirrhilabrus Group. Like other wrasses the Cirrhilabrus group have long, cigar shaped bodies and are extremely strong swimmers using primarily their pectoral fins. Cirrhilabrus wrasses are distinct in that they have “divided” corneas that are thought to help focus and magnify the visual field and improve depth perception. Their small mouthparts and strong, magnified vision, makes them particularly good hunters of small benthic and pelagic crustaceans.

The Cirrhilabrus Group is comprised of three genera:

  • Cirrhilabrus—The Fairy Wrasses
  • Paracheilinus—The Flasher/Filamented Wrassses
  • Pseudocheilinus—The Lined Wrasses

Almost all wrasses within this grouping are reef safe, and make excellent additions to the community reef tank.

Cirrhilabrus—The Fairy Wrasses

Fairy wrasses can make wonderful additions for the average reef hobbyist. They are almost all brightly colored, and add personality and flare to any moderately sized reef tank.

Fairy wrasses can be found in groups of a dozen to a few dozen. They are excellent schooling fish, and when bought individually, will often swim alongside schools of anthias, chromis, or tangs. Most fairy wrasses are excellent choices for schooling fish, as they are protogynous hermaphrodites and change sex with age or social dynamics. Though it is usually best to keep one male to a harem of females, it is also possible to purchase many females. The socially dominant female will often change sex and coloration within a few months.

Many of the fairy wrasses are very moderately priced and are quite regularly available. For instance, the Lubbock’s Fairy Wrasse has been cited to be one of the remarkable and fascinating schooling fish available. Though more expensive than your run of the mill school of chromis, they are less problematic than schooling tangs, and hardier and less expensive than schooling Anthias. Also readily available are the Red Parrot Wrasse, Painted Fairy Wrasse, and Blue Head Fairy Wrasse.

For the more adventurous hobbyist, many fairy wrasses are exceptionally beautiful and difficult to find. They make excellent collector’s choices. For instance, Flame Fairy Wrasses, Red Velvet Fairy Wrasses, Exquisite Fairy Wrasses, Laboute’s Fairy Wrasses, and Scott’s Fairy Wrasses are often difficult, to find, and command reasonably high prices.

Some fairy wrasses are even rarer, more exotic, and command higher prices. A good, healthy Lineatus Fairy Wrasse will often command a price greater than $250. Even rarer are the Rhomboid Fairy Wrasses, with prices ranging from $300-$450 per animal. Needless to say, should you choose to invest in an animal such as this, make sure to have a tight fitting lid and a good sized quarantine tank. They are usually robust and hearty eaters, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Paracheilinus—The Flasher/Filamented Wrassses

Flasher Wrasses are often grouped alongside fairy wrasses. They are quite similar to fairy wrasses and are often difficult to distinguish from them. They are usually a bit smaller than fairy wrasses, and will often have elongated or “filamented” dorsal fins. One wonderful distinction is their sociability; multiple member groups consisting of Males and Females are often found in nature and can be replicated in larger tanks. Males will often “flash” each other, displaying beautiful finnage changing to bolder and brighter colors, in a display of dominance. Though this is a beautiful display, be wary about adding multiple males, as they may quarrel and cause undue stress. It is preferred to add all members of a group at once, and only choose multiple males if you have a larger tank.

There are many wonderful choices available among the flasher wrasses. Almost all of them are reasonably priced and readily available. For instance, the beautiful Carpenter’s Flasher Wrasses and the Filamented Flasher Wrasses are commonly found. Males of these species are exceptionally beautiful and when well fed, have bright, elongated finnage almost unparallel in the industry.

For the more avid collector, McCosker’s Flasher Wrasse, and the Blue Flasher Wrasse are occasionally available. The McCosker’s Flasher Wrasse will have bright orange coloration, and as it matures to a sexually active male, it will gain bright blue stripes along its side. The Blue Flasher Wrasse when purchased usually arrives as a bright purple female with brilliant blue spots and stripes along its side. As it matures to a male, the purple fades to a bright blue, that shimmer’s almost metallic when “flashing” a fellow male.

Pseudocheilinus—The Lined Wrasses

The last genus within the Cirrhilabrus Group is Pseudocheilinus—The Lined Wrasses. Like Fairy Wrasses of the genus Cirrhilabrus, and the Flasher Wrasses of the genus Paracheilinus, lined wrasses share the same divided cornea. It is a bit more understandable with these guys, as the divided cornea is believed to create a type of super magnified vision, allowing superior hunting along the reef. Unlike Fairy and Flasher Wrasses, which are primarily planktivores, these wrasses are avid hunters. They will often buzz around the liverock hunting benthic crustaceans such as copepods and mysids.

A favorite of mine, and an industry standard, is the Six Lined Wrasse. They are so wonderfully colored that they often remind me of a tiny slice of watermelon! As they stay relatively small, even for wrasses, they make wonderful additions to moderately sized tanks. They readily accept prepared foods, and will fare well with other community fish. As these are hunters, they will keep “pod” populations relatively low, so be wary about purchasing dragonets such as Mandarins, or “Scooter blennies”. Wrasses will often out-compete dragonets for food.

The most difficult and highest sought after lined wrasses doesn’t look lined at all. The Mystery (Mysteri, Barred Mystery) Wrasse is one of the oddest, and most secretive wrasses in the industry. It’s rarity and beautiful coloration will often justify inflated prices.