Blackear Wrasse

Blackear Wrasse, Halichoeres poeyi

The Blackear Wrasse, Halichoeres poeyi, whose common Spanish name is doncella orejinegra, is a species in the Wrasse or Labridae Family, known collectively as doncellas, señoritas and loros in Mexico. Globally, there are seventy species in the genus Halichoeres, seventeen of which are found in Mexican waters, ten in the Atlantic and seven in the Pacific.

The Blackear Wrasses have elongated compressed bodies with a depth that is 25 to 29% of standard length. Juveniles are yellowish-green with irregular short brown bars along the center of their body, an elongated black ocellus at the rear of their dorsal fin spines, a smaller black spot at the rear of their dorsal fin rays, and a small black spot in the center of their caudal fin base. Females (Initial Phase) are similar in color to males except that their colors are less intense and their body is a uniform yellowish-green. Males (Terminal Phase) have greenish bodies with two yellow-brown bars under their spiny dorsal fin and a yellowish-green head with a prominent iridescent black-orange spot immediately behind their eyes. They have three wide pink stripes – one that extends forward from the eye, one that extends back along the gill cover, and one that extends from the mouth to the gill cover. The upper base of their pectoral fin has a blue-black spot and there is a black spot on the rear base of their dorsal fin. Their caudal fin is yellowish with converging pink stripes and blue borders. Their head has a protrusible mouth that opens in the front with thick lips. They are equipped with canine teeth with two pairs on their top jaw, one at the front and one at the rear, and two pairs at the front of their lower jaw. Their anal fin has 3 spines and 12 rays; their dorsal fin is continuous with 9 spines and 12 rays. They have 17 to 20 gill rakers. Their lateral line is continuous with an abrupt downturn under the rear end of the dorsal fin. They are covered with scales.

The Blackear Wrasses are coastal residents found in beds of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) where food and refuge are plentiful, at depths up to 100 feet. They reach a maximum length of 20.0 cm (7.9 inches). They are normally solitary and wary. They feed primarily on small crustaceans and molluscs. They are protogynous hermaphrodites with females being able to transform into fully functional males at midlife; this transition occurs when the fish reach about 8.3 cm (3.3 inches) in length. Males form leks during breeding where they aggregate and put on extensive displays to attract females. Fertilization is external with pelagic eggs developing rapidly. They are a small shallow-water species and very little is known about their behavioral patterns.

In Mexican waters the Blackear Wrasses have a limited distribution being limited to the eastern Gulf of Mexico and are found only north and east of the Yucatán Peninsula.

The Blackear Wrasse is most likely confused with the Slippery Dick, Halichoeres bivittatus (lacks yellow coloration; black spot behind eye closer to pectoral fins).

The Blackear Wrasses are small and of limited interest to most, thus a “catch and release.” They are fairly common with a wide distribution in the Caribbean. From a conservation perspective, they are considered of Least Concern. They have been used on a very limited basis as aquarium fish. They have the ability to hide in sandy substrate when frightened.

Blackear Wrasse, Halichoeres poeyi, terminal phase (TP) male. Fish caught off the beach at Playa del Carmen, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, February 2016. Length: 15.2 cm (6.0 inches). Catch, photo, and identification courtesy of George Brinkman, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.