The Wrasse Family – Labridae
The fish of the Wrasse or Labridae family are known in Mexico’s fishing areas as doncellas, señoritas, and viejas. They are the most abundant and conspicuous fish on tropical reefs around the world. The family includes the Hogfish, the Razorfish, the Sheepheads, and the Wrasses. They are the second largest family of marine fish and feature approximately 600 species belonging to 82 genera.
Wrasses inhabit tropical and subtropical latitudes and are found throughout the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans in a wide variety of habitats, such as tidal pools, grassy beds, rocky or coral reefs, or open sand bottoms, with a wide range of water temperatures. They are always found close to the bottom. Most wrasses are small and normally measure about 20 cm (8 inches). The smallest is the Minute Wrasse, Minilabrus striatus from the Red Sea (4.5 cm; 1.8 inches) and the largest is the Humphead Wrasse, Cheilinus undulates (2.3 meters; 91 inches and over 150 kg; 330 pounds). Wrasses are more highly concentrated off the coasts of Australia where about 165 species and 42 genera are represented. They fill many important ecological roles on reefs of tropical and temperate regions around the world. Most reef wrasses have a lifespan of between three and five years.
Wrasses have elongated to oblong bodies that are slightly or strongly compressed. They have protractile mouths that open in the front usually with prominent lips and one to two pairs of well-developed canine teeth at the front of the jaws. Their caudal fin has eleven or twelve branched rays. They have a single continuous dorsal fin that runs the length of the back without a notch between the spinous and soft portions. They are diurnal and opportunistic visual feeders, feeding individually, in pairs, or in large schools and consume coral, crabs, fish, plant materials, mollusks, plankton, worms, and zooplankton. Smaller fish are known to follow the feeding trails of larger fish, picking up leftovers. They have strong, hard beaks and a second set of strong teeth in the throat, providing them with the ability to crush hard-shelled invertebrates. Some use their snouts to flip rocks and pieces of coral to expose hidden invertebrates. Wrasses, in turn, are preyed upon by other larger fishes.
A characteristic feature of wrasses is their form of propulsion, which relies almost entirely on their pectoral fins. They bounce through the water column using their pectoral fins and their caudal fin is only used when a burst of speed is needed. Many wrasses bury themselves in the sand or seek crevices to hide in at night where they produce a foul-smelling mucous bag to deter predators while sleeping.
Many wrasses utilize some of the most complex and unusual reproduction systems known to fish. Most are sexually dimorphic changing from female to male at mid-life. Males can be either primary (born male) or secondary (females that have undergone a sex change). All individuals proceed through three distinct phases, marked by color differences:
- Juveniles (sexually immature)
- Initial Phase (IP), which can include sexually mature males or females
- Terminal Phase (TP) that includes only mature males
TP males usually dominate reproductive activity through a harem-based social system. The size of the spawning groups range from a dozen to several hundred individuals. Males outnumber females, sometimes by as much as ten to one. Most species defend small territories only during spawning. The death of a TP male serves as a social cue for an IP female to change sex and behavior. They typically exhibit broadcast spawning, releasing high numbers of planktonic eggs, which are pelagic and widely distributed by tidal currents. Adults do not interact with offspring.
Wrasses display a myriad of colors and shapes. For example, Razorfish are relatively short, elongated, and laterally compressed, whereas Hogfish are large and stocky. Most wrasses are cigar-shaped, i.e. tapered at both ends. There is often considerable diversity of colors and shapes within the individual species. Most fish progress through phases with each phase featuring a change in morphology (shape and color). Dominant larger males (and occasionally females) are the most distinctly colored, with complex patterns of red, yellow, green, blue, and black. Subordinate males and females are smaller are often drab-colored with cryptic patterns. Juveniles are cryptically colored to avoid predation.
A special group of wrasses are the Cleaner Wrasses that can groom larger fish (“Client fish”) by removing mucous, parasites, and scales from the bodies, gills, and mouths of the Client fish. This is generally viewed as mildly beneficial to the Client fish, which are known to congregate at wrasse “cleaning stations.”
Wrasses are consumed by humans in many countries with the most common species being the Tautog, Tautoga onitis. Wrasses are found in the aquarium trade and are also used in salmon farms as cleaning fish to combat sea-lice infestations. The fossil history of the Labridae dates back to the Lower Tertiary and Paleocene epochs.
There are twenty-four members of the Wrasse family represented in the fish identification section of this website:
Banded Wrasse, Halichoeres notospilus
Blackear Wrasse, Halicheres poeyi
Blackspot Wrasse, Decodon melisma
Bleeding Wrasse, Polylepion cruentum
Bluehead, Thalassoma bifasciatum
California Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher
Cape Razorfish, Xyrichtys mundiceps
Cape Wrasse, Sagittalarva inornata
Chameleon Wrasse, Halichoeres dispilus
Clown Wrasse, Halichoeres maculipinna
Cortez Rainbow Wrasse, Thalassoma lucasanum
Emerald Wrasse, Thalassoma virens
Hogfish, Lachnolainus maximus
Mexican Hogfish, Bodianus diplotaenia
Peacock Razorfish, Iniistius pavo
Puddingwife, Halichoeres radiatus
Rock Wrasse, Halichoeres semicinctus
Rockmover Wrasse, Novaculichthys taeniourus
Señorita, Oxyjulis californica
Slippery Dick, Halichoeres bivittatus
Spinster Wrasse, Halichoeres nicholsi
Sunset Wrasse, Thalassoma grammaticum
Wounded Wrasse, Halichoeres chierchiae
Yellowhead Wrasse, Halichoeres garnoti
Note: Many scientists include the Parrotfish from the Scaridae family as members of a subfamily of the Labridae family. Others believe that the Scaridae family is a standalone separate family. Not wanting to enter this controversy, I tossed a coin and separated the two, thus a Parrotfish or Scaridae family page with four Parrotfish from Mexican waters of the Pacific are included in a different location on this website.