Cirrhilabrus: The Fairy Wrasses
Author: Phillip Hunt
A marine aquarium usually charms and enchants all who see it, but the extravagant coloration of the majestic fairy wrasses can make a tank positively mesmerizing!
Vibrant Fairy Wrasses
Fairy wrasses, among the most beautiful marine fishes, are known for their vibrant colors and striking patterns. They also happen to be generally peaceful, with interesting behaviors and bold personalities, which makes them great residents for the fish-only community or reef tank. In order to learn the basics about fairy wrasses (Cirrhilabrus spp.), it’s best to start by understanding their natural habitats and behaviors.
Fairy Wrasses in the Wild
The various species of Cirrhilabrus wrasses are found in the wild from the Red Sea through the Indian Ocean and across the Pacific to the Pitcairn Islands, as far north as Hawai‘i and the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan.
Cirrhilabrus wrasses are typically encountered in small groups feeding on zooplankton a few feet above the substrate, often over rubble. Depending on the species, they can be found from a few feet beneath the surface to depths of over 600 feet. They may swim in groups of their own species or form mixed aggregations with other Cirrhilabrus, flasher wrasses Paracheilinus, or other planktivores such as Pseudanthias. Within typical single-species groups, most individuals are females, with a single male in attendance. However, there are exceptions to this and some all-male groups are found in some species.
Male Cirrhilabrus wrasses are always larger than females and are usually more brightly colored. In many species, the males can intensify their colors or change patterns rapidly when displaying to females or to other males. As no small male Cirrhilabrus wrasses have been found, it is believed that all individuals begin life as females, but some, probably the dominant individuals, become males. This is known as protogynous hermaphroditism and is common among wrasses.
Cirrhilabrus species have unusual eyes; the cornea is split into two distinct parts. It is believed that the center of the cornea acts as a close-up lens that helps the wrasses spot small prey. This feature is also found in some other wrasse species, such as Paracheilinus, Pseudocheilinus, Pseudocheilinops, and Pteragogus.
Another curious feature of Cirrhilabrus wrasses is their secretion of mucus cocoons, which they sleep in. These cocoons are believed to prevent nocturnal predators from being able to detect the sleeping wrasses by scent.
As if this genus didn’t have enough stunning fishes to offer, new Cirrhilabrus species are still being discovered regularly. In fact, most Cirrhilabrus species haven’t been known to science, let alone the aquarium hobby, for long. Of the 46 Cirrhilabrus species currently listed as valid by FishBase.org, only 9 were described before 1980. In contrast, 11 new species have been described since 2000, the most recent being C. naokoae in 2009.
In fact, new species are sometimes identified on the basis of fishes collected for the marine aquarium trade. C. naokoae is one example of this, where the type specimen was collected off Sumatra and was probably destined for the aquarium trade in Japan. Despite being newly described, this species can be found on sale in the United States, albeit at a fairly high price.
Because different species of fairy wrasses can look quite similar to each other but show variation within a species, undescribed species may turn up in fish dealers’ tanks but not be recognized as such. It’s entirely possible that C. naokoae could have been imported regularly before it was formally described but sold as one of the similar species such as C. joanallenae.
Keeping Fairy Wrasses
Cirrhilabrus species are generally straightforward to keep, but they exhibit one particular behavior worth noting: These wrasses jump at the slightest provocation. They jump if they are being chased by other fishes or if they are startled. When new to the aquarium, they may even jump when someone approaches the tank or when the lights are switched on or off.
Fortunately, they soon get used to their keepers and learn to associate humans with food rather than see them as a threat. They also get used to the rather sudden dawns and dusks in captivity, but this still leaves them with plenty of other reasons to take to the air. Covering the tank is therefore a must, and it is best to do so carefully, as fairy wrasses can escape through surprisingly small gaps.
Even after covering the aquarium, however, these fishes can sometimes come to grief through jumping: I once had one crash so hard into a glass tank cover that it didn't survive the impact. This is fortunately a rare event, but there isn't much that can be done to prevent it. Using thin plastic condensation trays to cover the tank rather than heavier glass or acrylic covers is one solution, but such covers need to be changed frequently because they discolor easily under intense lighting.
In the aquarium, Cirrhilabrus wrasses seem to have well-defined sleep patterns. When the lights go out at night, they disappear into caves and crevices and do not emerge until after the lights come on again in the morning. They don’t cruise around in the twilight like some other aquarium fishes.
Apart from this predilection for jumping, Cirrhilabrus wrasses pose relatively few challenges to the hobbyist. They do not seem to be particularly demanding in terms of water quality, and will live in both fish-only tanks and reef aquariums (they pose no threat to sessile invertebrates).
Feeding is usually easy, as they will accept most frozen foods provided they are of suitable size—fairy wrasses have rather small mouths. Frozen Artemia, copepods, and mysis are usually accepted eagerly, and larger individuals also relish krill and chopped shrimp. Most Cirrhilabrus wrasses will also eat flake and pellet foods.
Like most planktivores, fairy wrasses are best given several small feedings per day. As well as taking food provided by their keepers, they hunt plankton in open water and small benthic invertebrates on the substrate. These small invertebrates include, for at least some Cirrhilabrus species, flatworms such as Convolutriloba retrogemma. These can become a nuisance, particularly in reef aquariums, so this is a useful bonus for keepers of fairy wrasses.
Cirrhilabrus species vary widely in adult size, from under 3 inches (C. flavidorsalis, for example) to close to 6 inches (C. cyanopleura, among others). Their aquariums should be sized accordingly and, as most species are active swimmers, it’s best to err on the side of generosity. None of these wrasses are suitable for nano-reef aquariums, as even the smallest species require more swimming space than such tanks afford.
Tankmates and Aggression
Cirrhilabrus spp. often associate well with other fishes in the aquarium, but there are some exceptions. The main issue in practical terms is mixing Cirrhilabrus species with other planktivorous fishes. Cirrhilabrus wrasses can generally be considered to be somewhere in the middle of the aggressiveness scale. While they will sometimes bully less assertive planktivores, such as flasher wrasses Paracheilinus species, they may be beaten up by tougher fishes, such as the more aggressive of the Pseudanthias species.
A Word of Caution
Mixing Cirrhilabrus species with other wrasses also requires some precaution. Halichoeres wrasses, particularly large mature males, may become very aggressive toward Cirrhilabrus species. If the Cirrhilabrus wrasse is one of the bolder, more robust species, it may be able to hold its own, and an uneasy truce may be established in which occasional sparring is the only problem. Shyer Cirrhilabrus species may not do so well, however.
Species to Avoid
Other wrasses that can cause problems are the Pseudocheilinus species, such as the sixline wrasse P. hexataenia. Though diminutive, these wrasses are very aggressive—I once had a resident sixline wrasse, just 2 inches long, that chased a newly added Cirrhilabrus scottorum so fiercely and persistently that the latter was unable to come out to feed and succumbed quite quickly to white spot infection. The oddest thing about this was that the C. scottorum was more than twice the size of its tormentor.
It is also worth being careful when keeping fairy wrasses with the smaller hogfishes Bodianus spp., such as the candy hogfish B. bimaculatus, that are sometimes kept in reef aquariums. These have similar behavior to many fairy wrasses, and each species is likely to see the other as a competitor. Given that they are well matched in terms of aggressiveness, long-running squabbles can occur, generally leading to one combatant jumping out of the tank, particularly because hogfishes are just as prone to jumping as Cirrhilabrus wrasses.
Housing more than one fairy wrasse in an aquarium is tricky, and it is generally best to keep only a single specimen. Males can be kept with one or preferably more females in larger tanks (at least 100 gallons), but it is often difficult to obtain female fairy wrasses. In large tanks it is usually possible to keep males of different species together, especially if they do not look similar.
The risk of conflicts can be minimized by paying careful attention to the order in which the aquarium is stocked (following the principle of adding less aggressive species before feistier ones). Larger tanks are also better in this respect than smaller ones. It pays to bear in mind, however, that territorial fights involving Cirrhilabrus species are a very common reason for these fishes to jump out of the tank.
Males of some species, notably the long-finned fairy wrasse C. rubriventralis, are capable of quite dramatic color changes in response to social stimuli. The presence of females or rival males, for example, often leads to intensification of colors. Cirrhilabrus wrasses have a reputation for color loss after long periods in the aquarium, but this does not seem to affect all species. It is possible that the color loss seen in some species may be the result of the lack of such stimuli.
Cirrhilabrus males are usually kept without other members of their own species and thus do not have their natural social interactions. However, color loss is far from universal among fairy wrasses. It’s just as likely that as a male matures in the aquarium, its colors will gradually intensify. It is also worth noting that these wrasses sometimes look less colorful in dealers’ tanks than when established in the home aquarium.
Fairy wrasses seem to behave in two main ways in the aquarium. Some are very bold and cruise around in open water, often close to the surface of the aquarium. These species include C. solorensis, C. aurantidorsalis, C. scottorum, and C. cyanopleura. Others, however, behave very differently, usually staying close to rocks and corals and often swimming quite slowly, as if carefully scanning the area for small prey. C. rubrisquamis, C. laboutei, and C. rubriventralis often behave this way. A fairy wrasse’s tankmates can also have a profound effect on behavior; most of these wrasses are much bolder when kept with passive companions than when sharing a tank with aggressive planktivores.
One final point to consider in terms of aquarium husbandry is that Cirrhilabrus wrasses that originate in deep water are accustomed to less intense illumination than is usually provided for a reef aquarium. Although such fishes usually adjust eventually to brightly lit conditions, they may hide at first and ideally should be kept in an aquarium with more subdued lighting.
Five of My Favorite Cirrhilabrus Species
1. Cirrhilabrus solorensis
The red-headed or solar wrasse comes from Indonesia, ranging from the Flores and Banda Seas to Sulawesi, Bali, and Christmas Island. Males of this species are highly variable in color. Most of those seen in the aquarium trade have a yellow-orange head with a dark outline to the gill covers, a red eye, a bright white belly, a purplish-blue back, and flanks that most often are turquoise but sometimes green or blue. In some parts of its home range, these colors are only evident when a male is displaying to females or other males, but elsewhere this pattern seems to be permanent. Females, seldom found in the aquarium trade, have a white belly, a red head and forepart of the body, with the rest of the body being yellow.
In the aquarium C. solorensis is a bold species that is usually found swimming in open water, often close to the surface. It generally settles in well when first added to the aquarium unless aggressive species are already present. It grows to about 4 inches and, given that it is a very active swimmer, is best kept in a tank at least 4 feet long. A well-established aquarium favorite, this was one of the first Cirrhilabrus species to be scientifically described, back in 1853. Its spectacular colors do not usually fade in the aquarium.
2. Cirrhilabrus aurantidorsalis
The orange-back fairy wrasse is closely related to C. solorensis but is not such a familiar species in the aquarium. Males have a crimson head, the back and upper part of the flanks are orange, the belly is bright blue, and a pinkish-red streak runs along the flanks. As males mature, a darker, crown-like mark appears on the top of the head, and scales along the flanks develop dark outlines. If anything, the colors of this species tend to intensify in the aquarium. This is another bold species that spends its time cruising rapidly around the aquarium, generally high in the water column.
C. aurantidorsalis is only found in Sulawesi, Indonesia. It grows to around 4 inches and, like C. solorensis, should be kept in a minimum of a 4-foot tank. This species, or at least some individual specimens, will eat red flatworms Convolutriloba retrogemma.
3. Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis
In contrast to the previous two species, the red velvet fairy wrasse (sometimes known as the rosy scales wrasse) is quite a shy fish, especially when kept with boisterous tankmates, although it is bolder when kept with quieter companions. It tends to swim close to the substrate, slipping stealthily between corals. Males are exquisitely colored: When mature, the rear of the body is cream to yellow but the head and forepart of the body are red, with the scales having dark outlines. The fins are bordered in neon blue, the fin rays are purple, and the front of the dorsal fin is yellow or orange.
This is one of the smaller Cirrhilabrus species, growing to around 3 inches. It should be kept in tanks of 30 gallons or more. It has been reported to eat both flatworms and the pyramidellid snails that parasitize giant clams. It is found only in the Indian Ocean, around the Maldives, the Chagos Archipelago, and Sri Lanka.
4. Cirrhilabrus cyanopleura
The male yellow-flanked or blue-headed fairy wrasse (the two names refer to different color morphs) is a magnificent fish, but this species is often overlooked by fishkeepers. It is one of the largest Cirrhilabrus species, growing to 6 inches, and also one of the boldest, spending almost all of its time out in open water, often close to the surface.
Despite one of its common names, the head is more often green than blue, although to be fair some blue is often seen suffusing the green. The rear two-thirds of the body are orange to red, but the scales are outlined in purple. The belly is white. Some individuals have a bright yellow blotch just behind the pectoral fins—the common name of yellow-flanked fairy wrasse derives from this color morph, which was previously considered to be a separate species, C. lyukyuensis.
This is a species that seems to improve in the intensity of its coloration as it matures in the aquarium. It is one of the more aggressive fairy wrasses, and this, combined with its relatively large size and active nature, means it is best kept in quite large tanks—at least 4 feet long and preferably larger. It has a wide geographic range across the eastern Indian and West Pacific Oceans, from the Andaman Sea to the Great Barrier Reef, and North to the Ryukyu Islands.
5. Cirrhilabrus rubriventralis
The long-finned or social fairy wrasse is one of the most familiar Cirrhilabrus species in the aquarium. It comes from the western Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and grows to around 3 inches. It is one of the less bold Cirrhilabrus wrasses, often tending to stay close to the substrate rather than swimming out in open water, unless kept with very peaceful, passive companions. With the latter it can become the dominant fish in the tank.
This species should be kept in tanks of at least 30 gallons for a single fish, and it is possible to keep a male with several females in tanks over 4 feet long. Males of this species can change their colors very rapidly when displaying to females or other males, and may revert to female coloration (possibly even changing sex) if persistently harassed by another male.
The males of this species, in their display colors, have bright white bellies, with a scarlet head, flanks, and back. The dorsal fin has an elongated first ray, and the pelvic fins are very long. The tail fin has blue spots and streaks.
This color scheme, or variations on it, is also found in some other species. C. joanallenae, from the eastern Indian Ocean, notably Sumatra, is the most similar. The males have a blue tail fin, however, and the large pelvic fins of this species are black rather than red as in C. rubriventralis. C. condei shares the basic red and white color scheme but lacks the elongated first dorsal fin ray and often has black edging to the dorsal fin.
The red-finned fairy wrasse C. rubripinnis is also red on the back and flanks and white on the belly, but the dorsal, anal, and pelvic fins of this species are bright red as the name suggests. The recently described C. naokoae is also similar but has a yellow stripe separating the red and white colors on the flanks, and the dorsal fin is very dark with a distinctive shape. All of these species, with the possible exception of C. naokoae, may sometimes be sold as C. rubriventralis. Fortunately, the captive care required is very similar for all of them.
If this article has made you want to rush out and fill your aquarium with fairy wrasses, it might be worth pausing to consider the costs. Cirrhilabrus wrasses can be regarded as exquisite gems of the marine aquarium, but like most jewels, they don’t come cheap. Some of the more exotic species such as C. laboutei, C. lineatus, and C. jordani fetch fairly high prices, and rarities like C. rhomboidalis can cost even more.
There are several reasons for the high prices. Some species are collected in deep water, and others come from areas (Hawai‘i and Australia, for example) where collectors demand higher fees than in more typical fish collecting regions such as Indonesia and the Philippines.
There are also shipping costs to consider, as it’s a long, long way from Sri Lanka or the Great Barrier Reef to the United States. This latter point is illustrated by the fact that some species are much less expensive in the United Kingdom than in the States: a fish that retails in the UK for the equivalent of $50 to $60 may fetch $100 to $200 or even more in the U.S.
Are the Cirrhilabrus fairy wrasses worth the price? Many aquarists think so!
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