Parrotfish 101: Species Profile and Complete Care Guide 2024

Purplestreak Parrotfish on coral reef background, Similan Island, Thailand
Dr. Mollie Newton
Published by Dr. Mollie Newton PHD| Senior Editor
Last updated: June 5, 2024
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Parrotfish, known for their unique beak-like mouths, are remarkable and captivating sea creatures. However, understanding their diet and care can be daunting. Keeping these fish in captivity, especially in terms of feeding, can be difficult. Thus, it is crucial to grasp their specific dietary requirements, maintenance, and overall care routine to ensure they live a happy and healthy life.

Article Summary

  • Parrotfish are known for their parrot-like mouths and belong to a large family of marine fish with over 90 species.
  • Some cultures consider parrotfish a delicacy, but they play a crucial role in maintaining the health and growth of coral reefs.
  • These fish have complex dietary needs, primarily feeding on algae and coral in the wild.

If you’re planning on owning a parrotfish or just want to know more about them.

You’re on the right track!

Parrotfish are actually a different species than Blood Parrots. Blood Parrots are a type of Cichlid and not a Parrotfish species.

Here’s everything you need to know about keeping parrotfishes, including tank setup, diet, tankmates, and breeding…

The fish gets its name due to its parrot-like mouth that harbors tightly compressed teeth.

In the wild, parrotfish use their mouths to remove algae off corals.

Adult specimens tear off huge chunks of coral during feeding, which helps contribute to bioerosion of coral reefs across the world.

This fish is incredibly colorful and vibrant, but is challenging to feed in the home aquarium.


Parrotfish inhabit tropical and subtropical oceans around the world, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.

Natural Habitat

Parrotfish are found in tropical and subtropical oceans throughout the world, typically in coral coasts, rocky coasts, and seagrass beds.

Parrotfish Near Corals

Cultural Significance

Parrotfish are quite a delicacy in some parts of the world.

In Polynesia, the fish is served raw and used to be seen as “royal food” that was only consumed by the king.

They are a crucial component for the ocean’s ecosystem as they help clean the Carribean coral reefs they inhabit by scraping off alage and munching on dead corals.

This is vital for ensuring the survival of reefs and growth of new coral.

What Do Parrotfish Species Taste Like?

As parrotfish feed on coral and algae, they have a sweet, shellfish flavor.

Their fillets are white, meaty, and simple to braise or saute.

However, they are incredibly important to coral reefs and a lot of species are dying out around the world, so they cannot be sustainably fished.


Most species are a dull brown, red, or grey in their initial phases, but turn a vibrant green/azure with pink, yellow, or orange patches in their terminal phases.

In Mediterranean species of this fish, adult females are brightly colored and males are a dull gray.

This is different than most species of fish in which males are brighter in color than females!

How Do You Tell If They Are Male or Female?

Most species of parrotfish are difficult to sex as there isn’t much difference between genders.

A lot of other species of fish show sexual dimorphism such as males being more colorful.

However, this isn’t the case for the majority of parrotfishes.

It’s thought that some male varieties such as azure parrotfishes are larger than females.


Despite this, one of the most interesting aspects of parrotfish is that they are able to change their sex throughout their lives.

Primary males are fish that are born male and stay that way during their lifetime.

Secondary males are born female and turn male once they sexually mature.

Queen Parrotfish Showing Its Teeth by G. P. Schmahl
Queen Parrotfish Showing Its Teeth by G. P. Schmahl

Why Are They Called Parrotfish?

The parrotfish gets its name due to its parrot-esque beak mouth.

This “beak” is designed especially for picking algae off coral in reefs across the world.


The majority of parrotfish species are brightly colored and covered in unique patterns and markings.

They come in a range of colors such as yellow, green, blue, red, orange, black, and grey.

  • Humphead Parrotfish

The humphead is the largest parrotfish species and can grow up to a whopping 51 inches and weigh a hefty 100 lbs.

Males and females look identical and have a blue-green color.

They get their name due to the huge bump on their head.

Unfortunately, this fish is categorized as vulnerable.

  • Blue Parrotfish

Blue/azure parrotfish have a sapphire colored body with a yellow spot on their head, though this yellow marking fades as the fish matures.

As the fish grows, they reach lengths of between 12 and 30 inches, with males being larger than females.

They inhabit tropical and subtropical areas of the western Atlantic Ocean and Carribean Sea.

  • Rainbow Parrotfish

Rainbow parrotfish are greenish-brown with orange and green fins, as well as green dental plates.

They can grow up to 47 inches in length, weigh up to 45 lbs, and live for up to 16 years.

Sadly, this fish’s population is on the decline and is categorized as near-threatened due to their rarity in the wild.

  • Queen Parrotfish

Queen parrotfish have two different color phases, with females being reddish-brown or grayish-brown with a white lateral stripe on each flank and a pale head.

Female queen parrotfish change sex to turn into males, with larger males turning into a pale blue-green color, with azure spots near their mouth, yellow streaks between their eyes and mouth, and light azure bars on their pectoral fins.

Aquarium Varieties

There are a huge number of parrotfish species, but not all of them are commonly available in the fishkeeping hobby.

Here are some of the most popular aquarium varieties you’ll come across…

  • Stoplight Parrotfish (Sparisoma Viride)
  • Rainbow Parrotfish (Scarus Guacamaia)
  • Princess Parrotfish (Scarus Taeniopterus)
  • Bicolor/Bumphead Parrotfish (Cetoscarus Bicolor)
  • Redbanded Parrotfish (Sparisoma Aurofrenatum)
  • Queen Parrotfish (Scarus Vetula)
  • Midnight Parrotfish (Scarus Coelestinus)
  • Azure Parrotfish (Scarus Coeruleus)
  • Greenblotch Fish Parrot (Scarus Quoyi)

Do They Make Good Pets?

Parrotfish don’t make the best pets as they are extremely challenging to feed in the home aquarium.

Additionally, parrotfish don’t thrive in captivity and often have a shortened lifespan as a result.

Can You Raise Parrotfish in Captivity?

As of now, parrotfish have not been successfully bred in captivity. Any specimen you purchase will be wild caught.

Are They Good for Beginners?

Parrotfishes are definitely not beginner-friendly due to their complicated dietary needs.

Only experienced fishkeepers should attempt to own these fish.

Are They Easy to Keep?

Parrotfish are difficult to keep in captivity as they are prone to stress, which can lead to sickness or death.

Their method of feeding is also challenging to accomplish in home aquariums.

How Long Do They Live For?

Most parrotfish species have a lifespan of around 5 to 6 years, though some larger species have a lifespan of up to 16 years.

Unfortunately, a lot of varieties have shortened lifespans in captivity as they don’t normally do well in home aquariums.

Do They Die Easily?

Parrotfishes can die quite easily as it’s difficult to feed them properly.

They’re also highly susceptible to stress and illnesses.

How Big Do Parrotfish Get?

Parrotfish Swimming Towards the Surface
Parrotfish Swimming Towards the Surface

The maximum size this fish reaches depends on the species, but most are 12 to 20 inches in length.

However, a few species can grow to over 3 feet 3 inches in length, and the green humphead parrotfish can get to 4 feet 3 inches in size.

The smallest parrotfish species is the bluelip, which only reaches around 5.1 inches in size.

Can Parrotfish Bite?

Parrot fishes have around 1,000 teeth, all of which are lined up in 15 rows in a tight compression to form a beak structure.

They use these powerful and tough jaws to chomp down on coral, a noise that is so loud it can be heard throughout tropical reefs.

When these teeth wear out, they fall out and drop to the ocean floor, replaced by the row behind them.

Powerful Chompers

Now, with jaws so hard and stiff, you might be wondering whether they can bite.

This fish is very peaceful and their jaws are designed for crunching coral, but that’s not to say they won’t bite if they feel threatened or in danger.

Due to how strong their teeth, being bitten by a parrotfish would probably be quite a painful experience!

Do They Create Sand?

Ocean Floor Sand

When parrotfish scrape algae off corals and rocks with their beaks, they grind up the inedible calcium-carbonate reef material in their guts.

This is then excreted as sand.


In fact, the white-sand beaches of Hawaii are actually from parrotfish feces!

Why Do These Fishes Secrete Mucus?

Some species of parrotfish secrete a mucus cocoon, mainly at night.

Before these fishes go to sleep, they secrete mucus from their mouth to form a protective cocoon that encases the fish.

It’s thought that this cocoon hides their scent from potential predators.

Additionally, the cocoon may also serve as a warning sign to notify the parrotfish when predators such as moray eels disturb the membrane, giving them enough time to flee.

The skin of these fishes is enveloped in another mucus substance that’s thought to have antioxidant properties to help repair bodily damage, repel parasites, and provide protection from UV light.

Diet and Feeding

Parrotfishes have fairly complex needs in regards to feeding, so it’s critical that you make sure they’re nutritional requirements are being met.

What Do They Eat?

Parrotfishes are mostly herbivorous and use their beak mouths to chew off coral from coral reefs and consume algae.

It’s thought that less than 1% of parrotfish species bite into live corals as they prefer surfaces caked in algae.

The majority of species spend almost all of their time foraging and removing algae from corals.

Their unique feeding habits are vital for the ocean’s ecosystem as it helps keep coral reefs healthy.

Underwater Corals
Underwater Corals


Parrotfishes are split into three main groups that have different functions: scrapers, excavators, and browsers

  • Excavators

Excavators have huge, strong jaws to excavate the substrate, which leaves visible marks on rocks and coral.

  • Scrapers

Scrapers don’t have as powerful jaws and don’t tend to leave marks on coral and rocks.

  • Browsers

Browsers primarily feed on seagrasses.

What Is the Best Food for Them?

The best food for parrotfish is algae found on coral, but this is challenging to do in home aquariums.

It’s for this reason alone that parrotfish are so difficult to keep in captivity.

Some aquarists have trained these species to consume shrimp and nori seaweed, but this isn’t ideal.


The type of substrate you should use in tanks for parrotfishes is down to personal preference, but sand is a good option as it’s much more natural-looking than gravel.


Good filtration is key in any aquarium, but especially in large reef aquariums. As parrotfishes need a relatively big tank, you’ll need to make sure your filter is powerful enough.

Canister filters are ideal for large aquariums as they’re more efficient than internal or hang-on back filtration systems.

It’s important you choose a model that has the right water flow rate for the size of your tank.


As a rule, your filter should be able to clean four times the volume of your aquarium. For example, if you have a 200-gallon reef fish tank, then you’ll require a filter with a water flow rate of at least 800 gallons per hour (GPH).


As parrotfishes originate from warm ocean waters in coral reefs, just like the lionfish, their aquarium needs to be at an appropriate temperature using a fish tank heater.

The temperature for each species varies slightly, so check the specific requirements for the species you’re looking at owning.

Aquarium Water Bubbles
Aquarium Water Bubbles


In reef tanks, proper lighting is critical for growth of plants and corals, as well as ensuring a natural day and night cycle for your parrotfishes.

Most aquarists keep their aquarium lights on for 8 to 12 hours each day.

Plants and Decorations

In a parrotfish tank, you’ll need to make sure there are plenty of rocks and hiding places, as well as coral for them to feed on.

Real plants will also help your fish feel more at home.

The type of plants you use is down to personal preference, but I think Halimeda, Dragon’s Tongue Algae, Green Finger Algae, and Shaving Brush Plant look especially great in reef tanks.

What Size Tank Do They Need?

Parrotfishes require quite a large tank that provides them with plenty of swimming space.

Even smaller species require a decent-sized aquarium.


Personally, I’d opt for at least a 200-gallon aquarium for this fish. Larger species will require an even bigger aquarium than this.

Housing Recommendations

Tank Requirements

As parrotfish originate from the ocean in coral reefs across the world, they need saltwater to survive.

An ideal range of salinity for these fishes is 1.020 and 1.025.

Water Changes

One of the most important aspects of a healthy reef tank is excellent water quality, which is achieved through good filtration and regular water changes.

If water isn’t removed from your tank on a regular basis, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate will quickly build up.

This can cause an array of issues in your fish, including poor health and death.

Aquarium Water Change
Aquarium Water Change


Most aquarists remove around 20% to 30% of water each week, but this depends on your tank’s size and stocking choices.

If your aquarium is small and overstocked, then you will need to perform larger and more frequent water changes to keep your tank clean.


The temperature range for these fishes should be around 75 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit as this is an ideal warmth for many species of marine aquatic life.

Water pH Level

The exact PH level needed for parrot fish is open to interpretation, though most species appear to prefer levels in the range of 8.1 and 8.4.

If you think your tank might not have the correct pH level, you can check the pH level with an aquarium pH meter device.


Aquarium fish, especially reef species, are a commitment that requires time, care, and attention.

Once you’ve set up a parrotfish tank, you’ll need to keep on top of maintenance to keep your tank clean and fish healthy.

Make sure your parrotfish has access to plenty of algae and corals to ensure they get enough to eat.

It’s also important to frequently check for illnesses and diseases.

In addition to these tasks, you’ll need to perform water changes, test your aquarium water frequently, and check your aquarium equipment to make sure it’s all in working order.


If you’ve never owned fish before, I’d recommend learning a little more about their care and maintenance to make sure they’re the right pet for you.

This is especially true for reef tanks as they’re a bit more complicated to run than freshwater or coldwater setups.


Are Parrotfish Aggressive?

Parrotfish are an extremely peaceful fish that get along well with most other types of fish.

However, they might prey on smaller fish species like the royal gramma, or crustaceans on occasion.

Why Does My Fish Hide?

Fishes often hide when they are first introduced to an aquarium as the entire process is very stressful.

Fish will also hide if there are any predators in the tank or other inhabitants that are bullying them.

Lastly, fishes that are sick or dying often find a secluded area far away from other tankmates to retreat to.

If your parrotfish is hiding a lot, it could be due to these reasons.

Compatibility/Suitable Tank Mates

Choosing the right tankmates for this aquatic pet is another factor you need to keep in mind.

Here are a few inhabitants you can keep in a tank that houses parrotfishes…

What Fish Can They Live With?

Parrotfish are peaceful for the most part and don’t tend to bother other fish.

Some good tankmates for this fish include marine angelfish, clownfish, butterfly fish, batfish, boxfish, and hogfish. A seahorse is also a good option because of its passive nature.

Marine Angelfish

Marine Angelfish

These species are incredibly vibrant and beautiful, as well as being decent tankmates for parrotfishes.

They are known for their flat bodies, stunning colors, and graceful swimming pattern.


These fishes are territorial towards their own kind, but can get along with other species that are a similar size to them.

Larger species, however, are typically more aggressive than smaller species.


Smaller species of angelfish, feed primarily on algae and plankton.

A lot of aquarists who keep them grow their own macroalgae in an aquarium sump or refugium to ensure they get enough food.

The larger species eat hydroids (jellylike animals), tunicates (invertebrates such as sea squirts), and bryozoans (creatures located in rocks and seaweeds).

Water Parameters

Most species prefer their pH levels between 8.1 and 8.4, temperature between 72 and 82 oF, and salinity levels between 1.023 and 1.025.



As one of the most well known marine species, clownfish are a vibrant and relatively easy aquatic pet that can be housed with parrotfishes.

For the most part, they are peaceful but can be quite aggressive towards other species of clownfish.

This means you should only have one clownfish species present in your aquarium.

Males are often much smaller than females.

Unique Relationship

They have an interesting relationship with certain types of anemone as they are resistant to their stings due to a protective layer of mucus, which allows them to live harmoniously together.


These fishes are incredibly easy to feed and will accept mysis shrimp, brine shrimp, flakes, pellets, and frozen fish (as long as it is finely chopped).

Adults should be fed twice a day, while juveniles will need to be fed 3 or 4 times a day.

Water Parameters

Their tank should have a pH between 8 and 8.4, salinity between 1.021 and 1.026, and temperature around 72 and 78 °F.



Batfish have flat, disc-like bodies with spiny anal fins.

They are interactive and intelligent fish, but are better suited to experienced fishkeepers rather than those new to the hobby.

You should avoid keeping them with overly aggressive species such as saltwater triggerfish varieties as they are quite peaceful.

They can live singly, in pairs, or in small and large groups.

They are not reef safe as they will snack on small fish, invertebrates, anemones, and corals.

Due to their large size, they should have no trouble being housed with parrotfishes.


They should be fed a varied diet that consists of meaty frozen and live foods like chopped seafood. However, sometimes they can be trained to eat pellets or flakes, which can make like easier!

If ever you run out of food or pellets, don’t feed your fish bread as it can cause them to get constipated or bloated.

Water Parameters

They should be kept in tanks with a pH around 8.1 and 8.4, salinity between 1.020 and 1.025, and temperature around 72 and 78 °F.

Butterfly Fish

Butterfly Fish

Butterfly fishes are another popular choice for saltwater aquariums due to their beauty and bright colors.

There are many different types of this aquatic pet, all of which have very different tank requirements.

This is why it’s difficult to house more than one species of butterfly as they all have varying needs.


The majority feed on invertebrates and crustaceans in the wild, but will consume spirulina, brine shrimp, flakes, and pellets in captivity.

Water Condition

Each species needs water conditions, so you’ll need to check the specific requirements for the type you’re looking at getting.

For example, the Spotband Butterfly needs a pH between 8.1 and 8.4, temperature between 72 and 78 °F, and salinity levels around 1.020 and 1.025.



Boxfish are a strange but adorable species that get their name from their boxlike shape.

They are aggressive towards their own kind but are rarely meansprited towards other non-related species.

Not For Beginners

Like parrots fish, boxfish are difficult to keep as they are finicky eaters.

Therefore, only experienced aquarists should consider keeping them.

If these fishes are stressed, they release a poisonous substance from their mucus glands called ostracitoxin.

This has the ability to kill off any other inhabitants in the tank very quickly.


When first introduced to a tank, this fish prefers to be fed brine shrimp or bloodworms.

However, once established, they should be fed chopped clams, squid, mussels, and herbivore foods.

They are difficult to get to eat initially, which makes them challenging to keep.

Water Parameters

Boxfish prefer their tank with a pH of 8.1 and 8.4, temperature around 72 and 78° F, and salinity level between 1.020 and 1.025.


Hogfishes are part of one of the largest reef fish species with over 500 species across the world. One of the most well known varieties of this reef fish is the Lyretail Hogfish, which has beautiful orange and red markings and a long tail.


They are active predators and are aggressive towards peaceful and smaller species.

Some varieties act as part-time parasite-pickers as juveniles.

Just like parrotfishes, hogfishes are able to change their sex (from male to female).


Adults mostly eat mollusks (like gastropods, pelecypods, and scaphopods), but they will consume hermit crabs, sea urchins, and amphipods.

They crush their prey using their very strong jaws.

In the daytime, hogfishes shove their snouts into the sand of a reef to search for mollusks.

Water Parameters

They require their tank with a pH between 8 and 12, temperature around 72 and 78° F, and salinity between 1.020 and 1.025.

Can You Keep Parrotfish Together?

Wild parrotfishes are usually found in schools, so keeping more than one in the home aquarium shouldn’t be an issue.

However, you’ll need to make sure you have a large enough aquarium that can accommodate multiple parrotfishes.

Signs of a Healthy Fish

It’s a good idea to check over your aquatic pet for signs of illness/disease or any other abnormalities on a regular basis. This enables you to quickly identify when there’s an issue.

A fish will be brightly colored, active, and well fed.

Signs that might indicate a problem include cloudy eyes, marks, cuts, rapid breathing, lethargy, and faded coloration.

Red Flags

Identifying when your fishes aren’t quite themselves is vital for the right course of action and treatment. General red flags of a sick fish include:

  • Poor appetite
  • Loss of color
  • Clamped fins
  • Cloudy eyes
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Erratic swimming pattern
  • Flashing
  • Inflammation
  • Red gills
  • Lesions
  • Frayed fins
  • Malnourishment

Why Are My Fishes Turning Black?

One of the main reasons why fish change to black or develop black spots is due to stress.

Your pet could be stressed for a few different reasons, including an incompatible tankmate, poor health, or an improperly-sized aquarium.

Why Are My Fishes Turning White?

Fishes change to a white color usually when they are in poor health, stressed, or are dying.

If you notice your aquatic pet has had a change in color, then first check your water parameters to make sure everything is in order.

High ammonia, nitrite, or nitrate levels can cause fish to lose their color or even scales, so you should do a water change immediately if this is the case.


If your water parameters are all in order, check your fishes over for illness or disease signs.

You should also watch their behavior to identify if there’s a bully or predators in your tank that are causing mischief.

Common Illnesses and Diseases

Fin Rot

Fin rot is one of the most common diseases that affects fish.

Either fungi or bacteria cause it, but most of the time it is caused by the latter. 

his disease is usually brought on by poor water conditions.

Other Causes

Additionally, aggressive tankmates that are nipping or biting your other fish can also contribute to fin rot.

The most obvious symptoms of fin rot are fraying or reddening fins.

Severe cases can lead to complete destruction of the fins, which may never grow back normally.

Fin rot can eventually spread to your fish’s entire body and result in death if it isn’t treated.


The best way to treat this disease is to act quickly before the fins are overly damaged.

Antibacterial medication is effective for treating bacterial fin rot, while antifungal medication is effective for treating fungal fin rot.


Improving the quality of your water is also important to help your fish recover and regrow damaged fins.

Marine Ich

Clown loach with Ich

Unfortunately, marine ich (also known as marine white spot disease) is another common problem you’ll likely run into when keeping reef fish.

It’s caused by the parasite Crytopcaryon irritans.


The most recognizable symptom of marine ich is white spots.

If your fish is suffering from this disease, they will look like they’ve been sprinkled in salt.

These small white spots can appear on the body, fins, and gills of your fish.

Other Symptoms

Other common symptoms include flashing, rubbing against objects or decor, cloudy eyes, increased mucus production, pale gills, and changes in scale color or skin.


One of the most common treatments for freshwater ich is a high temperature to speed up the parasite’s life cycle, but this method isn’t usually suitable for marine ich.

One of the easiest ways to treat marine ich is to dose your tank with a copper medication.

Increasing the salinity of your aquarium water can also be helpful, as can freshwater dips and the transfer method.

Parrotfishes are pelagic spawners which means they typically spawn in the open ocean near the surface.

The female releases a huge number of small, buoyant eggs into the water that become part of the plankton.

The male fertilizes the eggs externally by releasing sperm into the water column above the reef.

Once fertilized, the eggs float freely and settle into the coral until they are ready to hatch.


Most species are sequential hermaphrodites, which means they start as females (known as the initial phase) and then change to males (known as the terminal phase).

Can They Change Sex?

Certain species of fish are able to change their sex, including the parrotfish.

In normal species, fish who are to become female have reproductive organs that produce eggs, as well as other hormones that make the individual look, behave, and act as a female.

Males have reproductive organs that produce sperm cells, as well as hormones that make them behave, act, and look as males do.


In species that change sex, only parts of the sex organs mature initially.

The species live as males or females for a short period of time, but when they mature or their mate dies, their initial reproductive organs die off.

Instead, the other reproductive organs mature and the fish becomes either male or female.

Hormones or chemical messengers in the blood causes this change between male and female.

Pair of Parrotfish
Pair of Parrotfish

Can They Breed in Captivity?

Parrotfish are difficult to breed in captivity.

In fact, no species has successfully been bred in captivity so far.


So, to sum everything up, these fishes are not the best pick for home aquariums due to their very complicated dietary requirements.

They come in a huge range of colors and are well known for their parrot-esque beaks that allow them to remove algae from coral in coral reefs.

They’re a vital component for the ecosystem in the ocean as they help keep coral reefs healthy. 


Many species grow to around 12 to 20 inches, but some species can surpass this.

These fishes are difficult to feed in captivity as they eat algae that they scrape from dead corals.

Some aquarists have trained them to eat nori seaweed and shrimp, but this is far from ideal.

If you want to own these fish, you’ll have to make sure they get the correct nutrition to keep them healthy.


Additionally, these fishes are prone to stress, which can cause them to contract illnesses or diseases.

While many species live around 5 to 6 years, it’s not uncommon for them to live less than this in captivity.

Sequential Hermaphroditism

One of the most interesting aspects of these fishes is their ability to change sex.

Primary males are born male and stay male their entire life.

Secondary males are born female but turn male once they sexually mature.

Unfortunately, all species of these fishes are incredibly difficult to breed in home aquariums.

As of now, no species has been successfully bred in captivity. This means that any species you purchase will be wild caught.

Thanks for reading my guide! Feel free to share it with your friends who need it.

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