Wrasses (the family Labridae), are the most abundant and conspicuous fishes on tropical reefs around the world. Wrasses also comprise an important element of the coldwater fish population on temperate reefs. They are second largest family of marine fishes and the third largest family in the Perciformes order, containing approximately 60 genera and roughly 500 species. Wrasses appear in a diverse range of colors, shapes, and sizes, often varying considerably within individual species (see Physical Description). This morphological diversity is matched by the wide variety of prey consumed. Wrasses fill the roles of piscivores, zooplanktivores, molluscivores, herbivores, planktivores, polychaete predators, decapod crab predators, and coral predators, as well as many others (see Food Habits). Many wrasses are organized into harem-based social systems and hermaphroditism is common (see Reproduction: Mating Systems). Finally, as suggested by their diverse food habits, wrasses fill many important ecological roles on reefs of tropical and temperate regions around the world. (Choat and Bellwood, 1998; Nelson, 1994; Wainwright and Bellwood, 2002)

Geographic Range

Wrasses occupy all tropical seas and penetrate considerable distances into temperate waters, reaching as far north as Norway. Many temperate species in the genera Oxyjulius, Tautoga, Tautogolabrus, Semicossyphus, and Labrus can be found in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Wrasses are most highly concentrated off the coasts of Australia where about 165 species and 42 genera are represented. (Allen and Robertson, 1994; Choat and Bellwood, 1998; Helfman, et al., 1997)


Wrasses can be found in a wide variety of habitats, such as tidal pools, grass beds, rocky or coral reefs, or open sand bottoms. Many wrasses prefer specific environments. Doratonotus, for example, prefer turtle grass beds, Hemipteronotus, mixed turtle grass and sandy patch areas, and hogfishes, weed-covered rocky flats. Plankton feeders, such as Clepticus, often concentrate in large schools at reef fronts, reef gaps, or other areas where plankton is concentrated in the water column. However, some species, such as the slippery dick, can be found in a broad range of habitats. (Allen and Robertson, 1994; Böhlke and Chaplin, 1984; Choat and Bellwood, 1998)

Systematic and Taxonomic History

Since male, female, and juvenile wrasses come in radically different colors and shapes (see Physical Description) and are conspicuous in shallow waters around the world, investigators initially named far too many distinct wrasse species. The number of species has been steadily declining but wrasses are still the third largest family of perciform fishes and the second largest family of marine fishes. Although many subfamilies and tribes are recognized, only one is monophyletic: tribe Cheilinini with 21 species (Westneat 1993 from Nelson 1994). (Nelson, 1994; Thresher, 1984)

Physical Description

Most wrasses are quite small, usually below 20 cm. The smallest species, Minilabrus striatus of the Red Sea, reaches a maximum length of only 4.5 cm. The genera Pseudocheilinus and Doratonotus contain several other dwarf wrasses. One species, Conniella apterygia, is so small that it lacks even pelvic fins and a supporting skeleton. The largest wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus, can reach a length of about 2.3 m and weighs more than 150 kg. Wrasses are most easily identified by their pointed snouts and prominent canine teeth in the front of the jaws, which often project forward. Wrasses characteristically have a protractile mouth, cycloid scales , and a single continuous dorsal fin lacking an obvious notch between the soft and spiny portions. The lateral line may be continuous or interrupted. (Click here to see a fish diagram). (Allen and Robertson, 1994; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Nelson, 1994; Thresher, 1984)

Wrasses display myriad colors and shapes. Razorfishes are elongate and laterally compressed, while members of Cheilinus, Choerodon, and many of Bodianus are large and stocky. However, most are elongate and tapered at both ends, often referred to as “cigar-shaped.” Cigar-shaped fishes are found in the genera Thalassoma, Halichoeres, and Labroides. Often, there is considerable diversity of colors and shapes within individual species. As in parrotfishes, some wrasses progress through “phases” (see Reproduction: Mating Systems), and each phase corresponds with a change in morphology (shape and color). Dominant males (and sometimes females) are the most distinctly colored, with complex patterns of red, yellow, green, blue and black. Subordinate males and females are smaller than dominant individuals and are often drab-colored with cryptic patterns. Juveniles range in coloration from bright yellow and orange to drab gray and brown, and some have camouflaging patterns. (See Reproduction: Mating Systems for details). Some wrasses exhibit sexual dimorphism. (Thresher, 1984)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • sexes shaped differently


Wrasses occupy a wide range of water temperatures and incubation time is directly affected by water temperature. In laboratory experiments incubation took approximately 24 hours at 27˚C. The planktonic stage is estimated to be around one month, although very little is known about this stage. The age or size at which individuals reach sexual maturity depends on the maximum size of the species. (Thresher, 1984)


Like parrotfishes, many wrasses utilize some of the most complex and unusual reproduction systems known to fishes. Males can be either primary (born male), or secondary (females that have undergone sex change). In some species there are no secondary males while in others all individuals are born female (monandric) and change sex when necessary. In the most complex systems, species are diandric – both primary and secondary males exist in the population. In these species, individuals proceed through three distinct phases, marked by color differences. In fact, the color differences are so pronounced that for over 200 years researchers regarded some phases as distinct species. Sexually immature juveniles represent the first phase. The second, known as the initial, phase (IP) can include sexually mature males or females, which are impossible to tell apart without internal examination or observation during spawning. IP males and females may group spawn in some species. The terminal phase (TP) includes only mature males, which display brilliant colors. TP males usually dominate reproductive activity through a harem-based social system. The death of a TP male serves as a social cue for an IP female to change sex and behavior. The morphology of IP males may also change in response to the death of a TP male. In some cases, IP males attempt to fertilize IP females by following a TP male and IP female pair during spawning. In this behavior, called “streaking,” IP males follow the pairs at peak spawning and release a large cloud of gametes in an attempt to overwhelm fertilization by the TP male. This is thought to increase the fecundity (ability to produce offspring) of IP males. IP males are well equipped to perform streaking as they have larger gonads and so are able to produce more gametes, while TP males have smaller testes and rely on aggression to deter other males. The larger volume of milt (gametes) produced by IP males is related to group spawning events with IP females, in which competition for fertilization is intense and more milt is needed. (Choat and Bellwood, 1998; Thresher, 1984)

Some specific examples of wrasse mating systems demonstrate the complexity and variation of the phase system described above. For instance, the cleaner wrasse, which is monandric (all individuals are born female), forms harems that are held together by male aggression towards subordinate females. With the death of the dominant male, subordinate females jockey for position and the newly dominant female adopts aggressive male behavior within a few hours. Each individual moves a step up in the dominance hierarchy and the last position is filled by a juvenile. If the newly dominant female is able to withstand attempts by neighboring males to take over the vacant harem, she will become a fully functional male within a two to four days. Some other harem-forming species are Cirrhilabrus temminckii, Cirrhilabrus jordani, Labroides bicolor, Hemipteronotus splendens, Pseudocheilinus hexataenia and Macropharyngodon moyeri. The Caribbean species Halichoeres garnoti is also monandric, but individuals do not exhibit territoriality or conspicuous dominance relationships, nor do they use aggressive actions to maintain sexual state. Instead, size or some size-related factor determines which individual will fill the male role. In Halichoeres garnoti males are larger than females and both sexes behave similarly. While these examples focus on the mating extremes of wrasses, most species fall between the systems of the cleaner wrasse and Halichoeres garnoti in terms of the influence of social control on sex reversal. Other hermaphroditic but non-harem-forming species include Halichoeres bivittatus and Halichoeres poeyi, Halichoeres maculipinna and possibly Thalassoma lunare. Finally, some species, such as Oxyjulis californica and Crenilabrus melops, do not follow the phase system at all as they are not hermaphroditic, and there are probably more non-hermaphroditic species yet to be found. (Choat and Bellwood, 1998; Thresher, 1984)

In tropical wrasses spawning occurs year-round but some temperate species seem to restrict spawning to warmer parts of the year. Spawning typically occurs along the outer edge of patch reefs or along the outer edges of more extensive reef complexes. The correlation between spawning and lunar periodicity (the lunar cycle) is sketchy in some species and non-existent in most that have been investigated. Spawning in several species corresponds with outgoing tides, however, many species spawn at a particular time in the day, regardless of tidal patterns. This variation may be due to local conditions. For instance, in areas where tidal forces are weak, factors like time of day or light intensity may have more influence. However, evidence from different species on the same reef suggests that temporal (measured time) differences in spawning evolved to decrease the probability of hybridization with other species. (Thresher, 1984)

Wrasses may spawn in groups or pairs depending on the species or phase of individuals. Typically, group or aggregate spawning occurs between initial phase (IP) individuals, which are diandric (containing male and female IP individuals). However, in some species, such as Thalassoma cupido, Thalassoma lucasanum, and Halichoeres bivitattus, terminal phase (TP) males have been observed participating in group spawning. The size of the spawning groups ranges from a dozen to several hundred individuals. Males outnumber females, sometimes by as much as ten to one. Paired spawning is found in many, if not all, tropical wrasses and involves a TP male and IP female. In rare cases, IP individuals also spawn in pairs. Most species defend small territories only during spawning. Currently Anampses cuvieri is the only known species of tropical wrasse to produce demersal eggs (eggs laid on the bottom as opposed to being released in the water column). Demersal spawning of Anampses cuvieri was only observed in captivity and still needs to be confirmed, but work on other species of this genus seems to support this observation. (Thresher, 1984)

Some temperate wrasse species, such as the ballan wrasse and Anampses cuvieri, are demersal nest builders. The nests are usually made out of plant material and the male guards the eggs after they are deposited. (Thresher, 1984; Wheeler, 1985)


No information was found concerning the lifespan of wrasses but, in general, reef species live between three and five years. (Moyle and Cech, 2000)


A characteristic feature of wrasses is their form of propulsion, which relies almost entirely on the pectoral fins. In what is termed “pectoral fins only” propulsion or labriform locomotion, the fish bounces through the water column using the pectoral fins and the caudal fin (tail) is only used when a burst of speed is needed. Wrasses are also strongly diurnal (only active during the daytime) and, like parrotfishes, many bury themselves in the sand or seek crevices to hide in at night. Interestingly, observations of wrasses in captivity seem to suggest a rapid eye movement (REM) stage while sleeping. REM sleep is usually associated with dreaming in “higher” vertebrates. Wrasses may forage individually, in pairs, or in large schools depending on the species. (Böhlke and Chaplin, 1984; Choat and Bellwood, 1998; Helfman, et al., 1997; Thresher, 1984; Wheeler, 1985)

Communication and Perception

Most wrasses rely on vision to find their prey. Visual recognition may also be important for terminal phase (TP) males to identify harem members. Although TP males are susceptible to streaking attempts by initial phase (IP) males (see Reproduction: Mating Systems), no IP males have been found in harem-forming species. This suggests that IP males are unable to mimic IP females, despite very similar morphology. (Moyle and Cech, 2000; Thresher, 1984)

  • Communication Channels
  • visual
  • Other Communication Modes
  • mimicry

Food Habits

Many wrasses are specialized and voracious feeders, as reflected by the highly variable skull and body shape, modified pharyngeal jaw, and prominent canines. The type of nourishment ranges widely: fish, ectoparasites, mollusks, polychaete worms, decapod crabs, corals, coral mucous, amphipods, various echinoderms, plankton, and several types of vegetation. Many small wrasses follow larger fishes and exploit any benthic (reef bottom) disturbances that help to reveal the well-camouflaged invertebrates. A considerable number are plankton feeders, forming schools in reef gaps, reef fronts or other areas with current. The food habits of cleaner wrasses are probably most well known. Cleaner wrasses remove mucous, parasites and scales from the bodies of larger fishes. Cleaning is not limited to the Labroides genus however; young bluehead and young Spanish hogfish in the Bahamas have also been observed cleaning larger fishes. Finally, some piscivorous (fish-eating) wrasses mimic harmless fishes (Randall and Kuiter, 1989 in Nelson, 1994). (Böhlke and Chaplin, 1984; Choat and Bellwood, 1998; Helfman, et al., 1997; Nelson, 1994; Wainwright and Bellwood, 2002)


Many juvenile wrasses are cryptically colored to avoid predation while others find protection among the tentacles of sea anemones. Nearly all adult wrasses bury themselves in sand at night to avoid predators. A few species seek out reef crevices and produce a foul-smelling mucous bag to deter predators while sleeping. Razorfishes (Hemipteronotus, Xyrichtys) also use the sand for protection during the day by diving into the bottom. Razorfishes are apparently quite agile in this environment, sometimes resurfacing several meters from the point of entry. (Böhlke and Chaplin, 1984; Thresher, 1984)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • mimic
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

The ecological role of cleaner wrasses of the Indo-Pacific region provides a good example of the complexity of seemingly mutualistic relationships between fishes. Typically, cleaner fishes are elaborately colored and perform displays over a patch of reef while larger fish approach and assume a relaxed posture. Cleaner fishes are commonly thought to benefit the host by removing dead or damaged tissue and ectoparasites. Accordingly, investigators reported higher recovery rates for wounded fish in the presence of cleaners. However, in experiments where all cleaners were removed from an environment there was no incidence of fishes leaving the area or becoming particularly unhealthy. Further, when levels of parasitic infections are high the host benefits from cleaning but when infection levels are low, which they usually are, some cleaners feed on healthy tissue, such as scales, pieces of fin, mucous, or in some cases the eggs of other reef fishes. Despite these parasitic qualities of the relationship, fishes being cleaned have a positive response to the tactile stimulation from cleaners, suggesting that some cleaners are mildly beneficial while others have taken advantage of the cleaning arrangement. (Moyle and Cech, 2000; Wheeler, 1985)

The relationship between wrasse species and their invertebrate prey is a spectacular example of coevolution. As invertebrates have developed anti-predator adaptations, such as spines, toxins, heavy armor, and adherence to the substrate, wrasses have evolved simultaneously. Some physical changes include the development of strong, hard beaks and a second set of strong teeth in the throat (pharyngeal jaw), making it possible to crush hard-shelled invertebrates. A conspicuous behavioral adaptation is “following behavior.” As larger fish disturb the substrate, some wrasses follow close behind to capture exposed invertebrates. Other small wrasses have become adept at combing the reef for invertebrates too small for most fishes to prey upon. Finally, some wrasses use their snouts to flip rocks and pieces of coral to expose hidden invertebrates. (Choat and Bellwood, 1998; Moyle and Cech, 2000)

Species Used as Host
  • some fishes
Mutualist Species
  • many fish species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Wrasses from the Coris genera are popular aquarium fishes and two species from the Atlantic coast of North America, the cunner and the tautog, are valued as commercial and sport fish. Some other medium to large wrasses are popular food fishes as well. (Allen and Robertson, 1994; Moyle and Cech, 2000; Nelson, 1994)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

No specific information was found concerning any negative impacts to humans.

Conservation Status

Four labrid species are listed as vulnerable: Cheilinus undulates, Lachnolaimus maximus, Thalassoma ascensionis, and Xyrichtys virens. (The World Conservation Union, 2002)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Other Comments

The fossil history of Labridae dates back to the lower Tertiary and Paleocene epochs. (Berg, 1958)


R. Jamil Jonna (author), Animal Diversity Web.


Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

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Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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Referring to an animal that lives on or near the bottom of a body of water. Also an aquatic biome consisting of the ocean bottom below the pelagic and coastal zones. Bottom habitats in the very deepest oceans (below 9000 m) are sometimes referred to as the abyssal zone. see also oceanic vent.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

intertidal or littoral

the area of shoreline influenced mainly by the tides, between the highest and lowest reaches of the tide. An aquatic habitat.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


imitates a communication signal or appearance of another kind of organism


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an organism that obtains nutrients from other organisms in a harmful way that doesn't cause immediate death

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


an animal that mainly eats fish


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.


having more than one female as a mate at one time


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.


condition of hermaphroditic animals (and plants) in which the female organs and their products appear before the male organs and their products


structure produced by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral polyps (Class Anthozoa). Coral reefs are found in warm, shallow oceans with low nutrient availability. They form the basis for rich communities of other invertebrates, plants, fish, and protists. The polyps live only on the reef surface. Because they depend on symbiotic photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, they cannot live where light does not penetrate.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


Allen, G., D. Robertson. 1994. Fishes of the Tropical Eastern Pacific. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Berg, L. 1958. System Der Rezenten und Fossilen Fischartigen und Fische. Berlin: VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften.

Böhlke, J., C. Chaplin. 1984. Fishes of the Bahamas and Adjacent Tropical Waters. Wynnewood, Pa: Published for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia by Livingston.

Choat, H., D. Bellwood. 1998. Wrasses & Parrotfishes. Pp. 209-213 in W Eschmeyer, J Paxton, eds. Encyclopedia of fishes – second edition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Helfman, G., B. Collete, D. Facey. 1997. The Diversity of Fishes. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Moyle, P., J. Cech. 2000. Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology – fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Nelson, J. 1994. Fishes of the World – third edition. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

The World Conservation Union, 2002. "IUCN 2002" (On-line). 2002 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed August 22, 2003 at

Thresher, R. 1984. Reproduction in Reef Fishes. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publications.

Wainwright, P., D. Bellwood. 2002. Ecomorphology of Feeding in Coral Reef Fishes. Pp. 33-55 in P Sale, ed. Coral Reef Fishes: Dynamics and Diversity in a Complex Ecosystem. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Wheeler, A. 1985. The World Encyclopedia of Fishes - second edition. London: Macdonald.