Yellowhead Wrasse

Yellowhead Wrasse, Halichoeres garnoti

The Yellowhead Wrasse, Halichoeres garnoti, whose common Spanish name is doncella cabeciamarilla, is a species in the Wrasse or Labridae Family, known collectively as doncellas, señoritas, and viejas in Mexico. This fish is also known as the Neon Wrasse. Globally, there are seventy species in the genus Halichoeres, nineteen of which are found in Mexican waters, ten in the Atlantic and nine in the Pacific.

The Yellowhead Wrasses have elongated compressed bodies with a depth that is 24 to 28% of standard length. Juveniles are yellow to brown with a dark-edged blue stripe that runs from their eyes to the end of their caudal fin base. Females (Initial Phase) are brown on top of their head with this color extending to the mid-dorsal fin followed by yellow and then transitioning to white ventrally; they have a fairly wide bar mid-length that extends from their dorsal fin to mid-body. Males (Terminal Phase) are yellow on top of their head with this color extending to the mid-dorsal fin and have a thick black bar mid-body that joins a broad black stripe; they are white ventrally and have gray caudal fins. They have small beady eyes and a protrusible mouth with thick lips that opens to three pairs of canine teeth at the front (one on top and two on the bottom). Their anal fin has three spines and twelve rays; their caudal fin is rounded; and their dorsal fin has nine spines and ten rays and is without a notch. Their lateral line is continuous and abruptly bent down under the dorsal fin. They have sixteen to nineteen gill rakers and are covered with scales.

The Yellowhead Wrasses are coastal residents found both in and around shallow and deep water reefs and exposed rock ledges at depths up to 300 feet. They reach a maximum length of 30 cm (12 inches). They are constantly on the move and easily attracted by divers. They feed diurnally on small crustaceans, sea urchins, mollusks, and brittle stars. They feed and spawn in different locations. They are protogynous hermaphrodites with females being able to transform into fully functional males at mid-life. This transition occurs when the fish reach about 7.3 cm (2.9 inches) in length. Males are highly territorial and maintain harems that consist of several females with fertilization occurring externally and pelagic eggs developing rapidly. They are a small shallow-water species and very little is known about their behavioral patterns.

In Mexican waters the Yellowhead Wrasse are found in all waters of the Atlantic but with diminished populations in the western Gulf of Mexico.

The Yellowhead Wrasse is a fairly easy fish to identify due to its coloration and black bar mid-back. It is fairly similar in body structure to the Yellowcheek Wrasse, Halichoeres cyanocephalus (lacks black bar mid-back).

The Yellowhead Wrasses are too small to be of interest to most and are normally a “catch-and-release”. They are, however, used in the aquarium trade and can be purchased via the internet.

Yellowhead Wrasse, Helichoeres garnoti, initial phase (IP), female. Fish caught from coastal waters off Key West, Florida, June 2015. Length: 7.2 cm (2.8 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Dean Kimberly, Atlanta, GA.

Yellowhead Wrasse, Helichoeres garnoti, initial phase (IP), female. Fish caught from coastal waters off Key West, Florida, March 2017. Length: 9.7 cm (3.8 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Dean Kimberly, Atlanta, GA.

Yellowhead Wrasse, Halichoeres garnoti, initial phase (IP), female, transitioning to a terpinal Phase (TP), male. Fish caught in coastal waters off Key Largo, Florida, December 2013. Length: 13.8 cm (5.4 inches). Catch, photo and identification courtesy of Ben Cantrell, Peoria, IL.