Saltwater wrasses are an incredibly vibrant and stunning species, making them an attractive addition to any marine aquarium.
However, their care needs and dietary requirements can be a little complicated, so it’s important to do your research before owning them…
Without further ado.
Here’s everything you need to know about keeping wrasses, including tank setup, nutrition, tankmates, and breeding…
Many wrasse species can be found in tropical and subtropical waters of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Ocean.
They typically inhabit coastal areas, coral reefs, rocky shores, tidal pools, and on the sandy seafloor.
Most wrasse species live in coral reefs, rocky shores, tidal pools, coastal areas, and on the sandy seafloor.
They are a diurnal fish, which means they are most active during the day.
Wrasses are able to bury themselves in sand or swiftly swim away from predators due to their well-developed pectoral and caudal fins.
Some species even hide in large tentacles or sea anemones and mushroom coral.
Wrasse fish come in a vast range of colors including green, blue, red, orange, and yellow.
They can be covered in an array of patterns and markings, too.
The species can be identified by its pointed snout, large lips, and prominent canine teeth.
Wrasse fish also have an elongated body with smooth scales and long anal and dorsal fins.
How Big Do Wrasses Get?
The maximum size and length wrasses reach depends on the species.
These fishes range from the very small to the very big.
One of the smallest species is the Pink Margin Fairy Wrasse which reaches just 2.5 inches in length.
In contrast, the biggest species is the Humphead Wrasse which often reaches up to 1 meter (some larger specimens have been known to reach 2 meters) in length.
As you can see, there’s a large difference in size depending on the species.
Can You Eat Wrasses?
Wrasses are edible, but they are not common fishes to eat and there is very little demand for them in commercial fisheries.
However, the Ballan Wrasse and similar “cleaner” wrasse species are sometimes used for removing parasites from high value farmed fish such as salmon.
The Ballan Wrasse fish when eaten has a sweet but mild flavor.
It is quite boney and has small white flakey fillets.
How Do You Tell If Wrasses Are Male or Female?
Figuring out the gender of your wrasse fish depends on the species.
For example, Cuckoo female wrasses are orangey-pink in color with black and white spots along their backs, while males have bright blue markings on their heads and backs.
Female Bluehead wrasses are yellow and brown, while males are green and blue.
Many species of these fishes have different color patterns based on their genders.
Capable of Sex Change
An interesting aspect of wrasse fish is that they are sexually dimorphic.
A lot of varieties are able to change their sex.
Juveniles are a mix of females and males (called initial-phase individuals), but the largest adults develop into territory-holding (called terminal-phase) males.
If you have two males in your marine tank, then the smallest fish will change to female.
Alternatively, when a male dies in a group, the dominant (usually largest) female changes gender.
Blunthead Wrasse (Thalassoma Amblycephalum)
The Blunthead Wrasse (Thalassoma Amblycephalum) is a stunning species that can be easily identified by its unique head shape, which is uncharacteristic of other wrasse varieties.
It has a rounded head with a sleek, rod-shaped body.
Blunthead wrasses are rather dull looking as juveniles, but they transform into vibrant and colorful individuals as they mature.
Initial phase males are white in color with dark stripes along their body and dorsal region. Females also share this coloration.
Adult male Blunthead wrasses have a rainbow appearance to them with a bright red body as well as blue, green, yellow on their anterior region.
Red Coris Wrasse (Coris Gaimard)
The Red Coris Wrasse or Yellowtail/Clown Wrasse (Coris aygula) is prominent in nearly every coral reef in the Indo-Pacific and Hawaiian Region.
As juveniles, these fishes have an orange body with white tiger stripes or spots on their back. Their tails and fins have a black outline.
This fish’s adult species have a speckled blue body with multicolored fins (yellow, red, and blue).
They have an orange face with green stripes. Males also have a light green stripe on their body.
Lyretail Wrasse (Thalassoma Lunare)
The Lyretail or Moon Wrasse (Thalassoma Lunare) have a blue lower body with a black spot in the middle, as well as a black splotch on their caudal fin base.
As they grow larger, the black blotch starts to turn into a yellow crescent.
Their body will also begin to turn green with vibrant fin and facial patterns.
Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus Undulatus)
The Humphead Wrasse is a gigantic fish that can reach 3 feet in length. In fact, they are the largest species in the family Labridae.
The Humphead wrasse gets its name due to the large bump on its forehead.
Male humphead wrasse fish are known to be vibrant blue to green, purple-ish blue, or dull-blue green in color. Female specimens are orangey-red with spectacular facial markings. In larger males, the hump becomes extremely prominent and takes on a bright blue color.
Splendid Pintail Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Isosceles)
Cirrhilabrus species (common name is fairy wrasse) are among the most colorful varieties of wrasse.
One of my favorite Cirrhilabrus species is the Splendid Pintail Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Isosceles).
They are a stunning palette of pastel pink, yellow, and orange. During courtship, males display even brighter color intensity.
Splendid Pintail Fairy Wrasse fishes are very peaceful and reef safe, so they’re a fantastic reef aquarium option.
Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus)
Bluestreak Cleaner wrasse are a iridescent azure color with black streaks along their body (hence their name!).
They form a symbiotic relationship with other species of fish by removing unwanted parasites.
The Cleaner Wrasse will set up a “cleaning station” and invite other fishes by engaging in a calming up and down motion of their tails.
Bluestreak Cleaner wrasse even clean the inside of mouths and gills on larger fishes, which is certainly a brave task considering they only reach 5.5 inches in length!
Types of Wrasses
There are many species in the family Labridae, all of which have different colors, sizes, and personalities.
So you are spoilt for options when it comes to choosing a wrasse for your marine aquarium. Let’s take a look at some of the most common varieties of wrasse fish you’ll encounter.
- Blunthead Wrasse (Thalassoma Amblycephalum)
- Red Coris Wrasse (Coris Gaimard)
- Lyretail Wrasse (Thalassoma Lunare)
- Splendid Pintail Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Isosceles)
- Multicolor Lubbock’s Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Lubbocki)
- Pink Margin Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Rubrimarginatus)
- Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides Dimidiatus)
- Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides Phthirophagus)
- Bicolor Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides Bicolor)
- Blackspot Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides Pectoralis)
- Redlip Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides Rubrolabiatus)
- Redfin Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Rubripinnis)
- Marshall Island Wrasse (Thalassoma Lutescens)
- Timor Wrasse (Halichoeres Timorensis)
- Queen Coris Wrasse (Coris Formosa)
- Glorious Wrasse (Thalassoma Quinquevittatum)
- Sixbar Wrasse (Thalassoma Hardwicke)
- Bluehead Wrasse (Thalassoma Bifasciatum)
- Cortez Rainbow Wrasse (Thalassoma Lucasanum)
- Goldbar Wrasse (Thalassoma Hebracium)
- Banana Wrasse (Thalassoma Grammaticum)
- Saddle Wrasse (Thalassoma Duperrey)
My personal favorite species are the Lyretail Wrasse (Thalassoma Lunare), Splendid Pintail Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Isosceles), and Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides Phthirophagus).
However, I think any one of the five species from the Labroides genus are an excellent addition to a reef aquarium due to their “cleaning” abilities.
Do Wrasses Make Good Pets?
Wrasses can make good pets provided you give them proper care and attention.
They are very colorful and interesting to watch, making them a great choice for any reef aquarium.
However, these fishes can be quite aggressive towards other fish, so their tankmates need to be selected carefully.
Can You Raise Fish Wrasse in Captivity?
Unfortunately, all species of wrasse are incredibly tricky to breed in captivity.
In fact, there have only been two cases of these fish being bred in captivity.
The first captive-bred wrasse was the Bluestreak Wrasse, and the second was the Melanurus Wrasse.
As you can see, these fishes are hard to get to spawn in home aquariums.
This means that any wrasse you find online or at a fish store will be wild-caught.
Are Wrasses Good for Beginners?
A good number of wrasse species are an excellent choice for those new to keeping fish due to their hardiness.
However, some varieties like Cleaner Wrasse can be a bit more sensitive, so they’re better suited to experienced aquarists.
Marine aquariums are more challenging to run and maintain than freshwater or cold water tanks.
If you’ve never owned fish before, I’d recommend setting up either a freshwater or coldwater aquarium first before you take the plunge to a saltwater tank.
Are Wrasses Hard to Take Care Of?
Some wrasse species are hardy and relatively easy to take care of, while some are a little more challenging.
Leopard wrasses are prone to stress and sickness, making them a bit more demanding in terms of care.
Cleaner varieties of wrasse like Bluestreak wrasses are notoriously hard to feed as they cannot eat large amounts of food.
This means they have to be fed often throughout the day in order to survive.
How Long Do Wrasses Live For?
Wrasses live anywhere from 3 to 30 years, which is quite a notable difference in lifespan!
The Humphead Wrasse can live for up to 30 years, while Fairy Wrasse species usually only live for between 3 and 5 years.
Most species of wrasse have a lifespan of 5 to 8 years.
Do Wrasses Die Easily?
Many types of wrasse are hardy and robust when given good care, but some species like Leopard Wrasses and Bluestreak Wrasses are quite sensitive and can die easily in a home aquarium.
What Do Wrasses Eat?
Wrasses are carnivores and eat many types of invertebrates in coral reefs.
A lot of smaller wrasses follow the feeding trails of larger wrasses and other fishes, feeding on invertebrates disturbed in the process.
What to Feed Wrasse?
In captivity, wrasses should be fed bite-sized pieces of meaty foods such as frozen or fresh seafood, live or frozen mysis, and brine shrimp, live ghost and grass shrimp, and live black worms.
They can also be offered fish flake food or pellets.
Cleaner species of wrasse mostly eat small invertebrates and parasitic copepods in the wild.
They are a bit more challenging to feed in captivity as they cannot eat a huge amount of food in one sitting.
This means you need to feed them many times a day to keep them healthy.
Cleaner varieties should be fed small portions of fresh, meaty foods multiple times a day. Offer them foods like mysis shrimp, brine shrimp, fish flake food, and pellets.
What Is the Best Food for Wrasses?
The best food for wrasses includes live or frozen mysis and brine shrimp, live blackworms, live ghost and grass shrimp, and fish flake food and pellets.
These fishes are carnivores; they require a meat-based diet.
Offering them a variety of foods in the aquarium will keep them healthy.
How Should I Feed a Wrasse?
You can feed wrasses simply by adding their food (be it ghost shrimp, brine shrimp, fish flakes, etc.,) to your reef aquarium.
Smaller wrasses species will need to have their food chopped up so it can fit inside their tiny mouths.
How Many Times a Day Should I Feed Wrasse Fish?
You should feed your wrasses 2 to 3 times a day.
Cleaner varieties will need to be fed 3 times a day in small quantities as they cannot eat a large amount of food at one time.
Fish from the Labridae family don’t need an overly complicated setup, but it’s still important you select the correct equipment and accessories for their aquarium.
The type of substrate to use in a reef tank for wrasses mostly boils down to personal preference, but sand is a particularly suitable option.
As wrasses originate from coral reefs with sandy sea bottoms, sandy substrates will make your fishes feel more at home.
It’s also much more natural-looking than gravel, which is ideal if you want to go for a reef aquarium with coral and live plants.
Some species of wrasse (especially those in the Coris, Anampses, Macropharyngodon, and Halichoeres genera) also enjoy burrowing in sand at night or when frightened, so it’s a good idea to use sand for these species.
Good filtration is key in any aquarium, but particularly in large saltwater and reef aquariums.
Wrasses require a relatively big tank, so you’ll need to make sure your filter can efficiently clean your aquarium water.
Canister filters are an excellent choice for large aquariums as they’re more powerful than internal or hang-on back filtration systems.
Make sure you select a model that has the right water flow rate for the size of your reef tank.
As a general rule of thumb, your filter should be able to clean four times the volume of your aquarium.
For example, if you have a 150-gallon reef fish tank, then you’ll need a filter with a water flow rate of at least 600 gallons per hour (GPH).
If you use a filter that has an overly low or unsuitable water flow rate for the size of your tank, then it won’t be able to clean your aquarium water very effectively, resulting in disastrous consequences.
As wrasses originate from warm waters in coral reefs, their tank needs to be at a suitable temperature.
To ensure your aquarium’s temperature is high enough for wrasses, you’ll need to use a fish tank heater.
If your reef tank’s temperature is too low, then your wrasses will not survive, especially if it’s much lower than their preferred temperature.
Monitor the performance of your fish tank heater often to ensure it is working correctly.
A heater that fails or malfunctions can have devastating consequences.
Each species’ specific temperature differs slightly, so check the particular requirements for the type of wrasse you want to get.
In reef tanks, good lighting is critical for growth of plants and coral and ensures a natural day and night cycle for your wrasses.
A lot of aquarists keep their aquarium lights on for 8 to 12 hours each day.
Plants and Decorations
In reef tanks that house wrasses, make sure you add plenty of live rock, crevices, and hiding spots to make your fish feel more at ease.
Many wasses species are reef safe so you can get coral and anemones for their aquarium if you want to.
However, species in the Coris genus are not reef safe as they eat hermit crabs, snails, tubeworms, snails, etc.
Quality of Life
Live plants will also create a more natural and organic environment for your fishes, so try to get as many as you can for their aquarium.
The species 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 Wrasses Need?
Different species of wrasse need different sized tanks.
As you would expect, larger species need bigger aquariums than smaller species.
Fairy wrasses need at least a 55-gallon tank, while the Blunthead wrasses require at least a 75-gallon aquarium.
If your aquarium is full of live rock, decor, and plants that limit the amount of open swimming space for your fishes, then you’ll need to get an even larger aquarium.
Even smaller wrasses are active and mobile fishes, so they need plenty of room to explore and swim in.
Wrasses need specific water requirements in their tanks to ensure their well-being and survival.
Let’s take a look at the water parameters, and maintenance wrasses require in home aquariums.
An essential aspect of maintaining a healthy reef tank is good water quality, achieved through ample filtration and frequent water changes.
If you don’t remove water from your reef tank often enough, then ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate will quickly build up. This can cause many issues for your fishes such as poor health and death.
Many aquarists aim to remove around 20% to 30% of water each week (replenished with the same volume of clean, new water), but this depends on the volume of your reef tank and stocking choices.
If your reef aquarium is small and overstocked, then you will need to perform larger water changes often to keep your tank clean.
Fishes from the Labridae family inhabit coral reefs in oceans, so their aquarium needs to have the right salinity amount.
Wrasses should be kept in water with a salinity between 1.020 and 1.025,
Wrasses are found in coral reefs where the water is very warm, so their aquarium water needs to be heated using a fish tank heater.
Many species of wrasse prefer the temperature of their water between 72 and 78 °F.
Water pH Level
Wrasses do best when their water has a pH level between 8.1 and 8.4
If the pH is too low or too high for your fish, it often results in a shortened lifespan.
As always, check the preferred pH levels for the species of wrasse fish you want to get.
Aquarium fish, particularly reef species, require time, care, and attention to thrive.
Once you’ve got your wrasse tank up and running, you’ll need to perform maintenance often to ensure your wrasses stay healthy.
Make sure your wrasses are fed a varied and well-balanced diet that is full of meaty foods.
It’s also important to regularly check for illnesses and diseases.
In addition to these tasks, you’ll need to conduct water changes, test your aquarium water frequently, and monitor your aquarium equipment to make sure it’s working as intended.
If you’ve never owned fish before, it’s a good idea to learn a bit more about their care and maintenance to make sure they’re the right pet for you.
This is especially true for saltwater tanks as they’re a little more complicated in terms of upkeep than freshwater or coldwater setups.
Additionally, some juvenile stage wrasses are easily spooked by larger fishes and will bury themselves in the sand, resulting in starvation.
Many wrasses are simply too large or need more room than the average aquarium can provide.
Fish in the juvenile stage can be easily frightened by larger tankmates and will spend most of their time buried in sand, slowly starving to death.
Some exhibit stunning color changes and/or true sex changes where the female becomes a male.
Other species have a supermale form that exhibits a totally different color pattern from the normal male.
If you chose carefully, there are many wrasses that do very well in the fish-only or reef aquarium.
I’ve had many different species, but I can only mention a few favorites here, along with some that should be given some forethought if you’re eyeing them for your aquarium.
Do All Wrasses Jump?
Unfortunately, all wrasses are known jumpers and will leap out of the aquarium if there’s no lid or hood.
When keeping wrasses, you should make sure a sturdy lid or hood covers your aquarium.
Compatibility/Suitable Tank Mates
As wrasses can be aggressive towards other wraases and fish species, they can be a little bit challenging to keep in community tanks.
Males of some species of wrasse, such as large species of fairy wrasses, should never be kept in the same aquarium as they are very territorial.
Smaller species can be housed in the same tank if the tank is large enough.
It’s best to avoid fishes that are a similar color or pattern to your wrasse to help prevent aggression, as well as slow, long-finned species.
You should also avoid large predatory fish like lionfish, many species of triggerfish, groupers, bigger species of wrasse, and puffers.
What Fish Can Wrasses Live With?
Some wrasses cannot be kept with other fish as they are aggressive, but some species like the Red-eye Wrasse can be housed with other fish like damsels, cardinals, blennies, gobies, and pygmy angels.
Make sure you read up on the species you want to get to see if they are compatible with other fishes.
Can Wrasses Be Kept Together?
Some wrasses can be kept together successfully, while others should never be housed in the same tank.
Male fairy wrasses, for example, should never be housed with other males. Additionally, Sixline wrasses are notoriously aggressive towards other wrasses and should be kept by themselves.
If you want to keep multiple wrasses of different species together (as long as the species are compatible), make sure your tank is as big as possible. You should also add them to your tank at the same time.
Can I Keep Just One Wrasse?
You can keep a single wrasse in an aquarium as they are not overly social fishes. In fact, some species do best when kept by themselves, such as the Sixline wrasse.
Signs of a Healthy Fish
It’s a good idea to look over your fish or signs of illness/disease or any other abnormalities as often as possible.
This allows you to quickly identify when there’s a problem.
A healthy wrasse should be brightly colored, active, and feeding well.
Signs or symptoms that might point to an issue include cloudy eyes, marks, cuts, rapid breathing, lethargy, and faded coloration.
If you suspect your wrasse is suffering from an illness or disease, then watch out for the following signs:
- Poor appetite
- Loss of color
- Clamped fins
- Cloudy eyes
- Rapid breathing
- Erratic swimming pattern
- Red gills
- Frayed fins
Common Illnesses and Diseases
Fin rot is one of the most common diseases that affects coldwater, freshwater, and marine fish.
Bacteria cause most cases, but fungi cause some.
Poor water conditions usually go hand in hand with this disease.
Overly aggressive tankmates that are nipping or biting your fish can also lead to fin rot.
The most apparent symptoms of fin rot are fraying or reddening fins.
Very severe cases can lead to complete destruction of the fins, which may never grow back properly.
If left untreated, fin rot can eventually spread to your fish’s entire body, resulting in death.
The best way to treat this disease is to act before your fish’s fins are too damaged.
You should use antibacterial medication for bacterial fin rot and antifungal medication for fungal fin rot.
Improving the quality of your water is also critical for ensuring the recovery of your fish.
Marine ich (also known as marine white spot disease) is another common disease you’ll likely run into when keeping saltwater reef fish.
It’s caused by the parasite Crytopcaryon irritans.
The most well known and obvious symptom of marine ich is white spots, which you’ll be able to see clearly on your fish.
Fishes with this disease will look like they’ve been sprinkled in salt.
These white spots can appear on the body, fins, and gills of your fish.
Other common symptoms include flashing, rubbing against objects or decor, cloudy eyes, increased mucus production, pale gills, and scale color or skin changes.
Marine Ich Life Cycle
Marine ich has quite an elaborate multi-step life cycle, so understanding how this parasite works is key to treating it properly.
The first stage of the parasite is the feeding or trophont stage.
This is when the parasites are swimming under your fish’s skin and gills, eating cells and fluids, and damaging their tissues.
You will be able to see white spots on your fish’s body during this period.
Your fish might display other symptoms such as pale gills, cloudy eyes, and flashing.
Treating the parasites in the trophont stage normally isn’t effective as they’re protected under your fish’s skin.
Once the parasites have left your fish’s body, they transform into protomants and lose their ability to swim. They fall to the bottom of the tank and turn into tomonts, developing into hardened cysts that will soon hatch.
Inside a single cyst are hundreds of new parasites known as tomites. After several days (sometimes weeks), the cysts break open and release free-swimming theronts.
They are looking for hosts (i.e. your fish).
Treating the parasites during this stage is the most effective approach.
The theronts have roughly 6 hours to look for hosts.
Once they’ve found one, they will burrow into your fish’s skin and become a trophont. After this, the whole cycle repeats itself.
As marine ich has such a complicated life cycle, an outbreak in your aquarium can be devastating and result in huge losses.
One of the most common treatments for freshwater ich is increasing your aquarium water temperature to speed up the parasite’s life cycle.
However, this method isn’t usually effective for marine ich.
One of the best ways to treat marine ich is to dose your reef tank with a copper medication.
Increasing your aquarium water’s salinity in your reef tank can also be beneficial, as can freshwater dips and the transfer method.
The female releases eggs and the male simultaneously releases sperm into the water column above the reef.
This process makes it more likely for fertilization to occur.
It also decreases the likelihood of the eggs being eaten by predators on the surface.
All Bluehead wrasses hatch as females, but some will turn male as they mature.
Young but mature male wrasses still look like females in terms of appearance.
They often engage in group spawning with big groups of female and male Bluehead wrasses.
As they mature, the largest males transform into ‘terminal males’.
These males defend territories from other male Blueheads and develop harems of females that they spawn with one at a time.
The broadcast spawning method is still used, but the terminal males stop other males from engaging.
Bluehead wrasses can reproduce through four different methods during their lifetime.
They can spawn as a female during group spawning, as a female in pair spawning within a big male territory, as a small male during group spawning, and as a terminal male in a pair spawning within its own territory.
Small males actually release more sperm than large terminal males as they need to compete with other male Blueheads.
Can Wrasses Breed in Captivity?
All species of the Labridiae family are incredibly tricky to breed in captivity.
As of now, there have only been two cases of these fish being bred in captivity.
Unfortunately, it is very unlikely you will be able to get your wrasses to breed in a home aquarium.
Fish from the Labridiae family are incredibly vibrant and colorful, so there’s no wonder why they’re such a sought after species to keep in saltwater tanks.
Many types are resilient and hardy, so they can be a brilliant choice for those new to keeping saltwater fish.
There are over 500 varieties of wrasse, such as Blunthead wrasses (Thalassoma Amblycephalum), Red Coris wrasses (Coris Gaimard), Lyretail wrasse (Thalassoma Lunare), and Splendid Pintail Fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus Isosceles).
Male wrasses are typically more colorful than female ones.
Due to their carnivorous natures, wrasses need a diet full of meaty foods.
Offer them foods like mysis shrimp, brine shrimp, blackworms, and fish flakes.
They require a fairly big tank, even the smaller species.
While some varieties can be kept with other wrasses and fish, some types like male Fairy wrasses should not be kept with other male Fairy wrasses.
Avoid slow, long-finned fish with similar colors to the wrasse you want to keep.
As you can see, wrasses are incredibly beautiful and unique fishes that are definitely worth owning.
No matter which species you choose, your aquarium is sure to look stunning!