For scuba divers and aquarium hobbyists, wrasse are a darting technicolour backdrop in the landscape of our busy and colourful reefs. Both in our tanks and in the oceans. There are over 600 species of wrasse and they are all part of the Labridae family; many of which are stunning and highly sought after for marine tank set ups.
This extensive family means there are varieties of wrasse everywhere, from the sandy sea floors to the coral reefs and rocky outcrops, in both temperate and tropical waters. The Cirrhilabrus species – commonly known as the ‘Fairy’ wrasse – are an agile, outgoing and vibrant tank addition and are increasingly popular in the ornamental trade.
A compact little fish ranging from only 3 to 6 inches long, males are generally larger and more brightly coloured, they also possess the ability to manipulate their colouration when displaying to females. All of these plucky little fish have prominent canine teeth, pouty mouths and large eyes to avoid predation and swiftly grab their tiny prey.
Hardy and reef safe, this means most fairy wrasse won’t nibble or consume your corals and are not generally aggressive, so won’t entertain punch ups with other species of fish or invertebrates you might keep (bar the very smallest of shrimp!).
Two things to bear in mind, one is that these fish are excellent jumpers – so caution is advised when adjusting lights or cleaning your tank (so as not to startle them), or if your setup is sans-lid! Two, they also have an inquisitive nature, which means they’re susceptible to disappearing into overflows that are not properly gated. It is also worth noting that, contrary to their smaller size, bigger tanks make better homes for these fish, 130+ litres being a minimum for most fairy species.
That being said, there are so many types of wrasse that smaller aquariums needn’t go without. The Pink-Streaked wrasse for example, is diminutive, friendly and easy to feed and only gets to 2.5 inches big when fully grown.
Fairy wrasse are relatively easy to care for and make great beginner fish, take the Scott’s fairy wrasse, this fish will thrive in basic marine tank parameters (temperature between 72-78, dKH around 8, pH between 8.1-8.4 and salinity between 1.020-1.025) meaning it’s only the price tag that makes it less desirable.
Fairy wrasse are carnivorous and (depending on their size) will need diets consisting of zooplankton, brine shrimp and mysis. Bigger specimens will enjoy cut up shrimp and all species will eat good quality flake food and pellet.
They have high metabolisms and will benefit from small, regular feeds. They also like hidey holes – as do many other ornamental fish, including those that are shy or secretive – so it’s worth incorporating areas that can act as bolt holes when aquascaping your live rock.
Recently, a small furore has been created around fairy wrasse, as a new species has been officially observed, documented and described in the Maldives. Featuring predominately pink and red hues, the aptly named Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa – finifenmaa is a reference to the Maldives national flower and means ‘rose’ – this abundant fish, common name the ‘rose-veiled fairy wrasse’, reaches about 7cm in length, exhibits striking rainbow colouring and is new to science.
Recently, a research expedition team called ‘Hope for Reefs’, an initiative led by the California Academy of Sciences (CAS), alongside the University of Sydney, collaborated with the Maldives Marine Research Institute (MMRI) and the Field Museum, on the discovery.
Co-author of the study, and biologist at the MMRI Ahmed Najeeb, has said that: “It has always been foreign scientists who have described species found in the Maldives without much involvement from local scientists, even those that are endemic to the Maldives, this time it is different and getting to be part of something for the first time has been really exciting, especially having the opportunity to work alongside top ichthyologists on such an elegant and beautiful species.” The rose-veiled fairy wrasse was formally described only last week and the paper published on ZooKeys, a peer-reviewed and open access journal.
Although the wrasse was collected as long ago as the 1990s, it was initially thought to be another species, a fully matured ‘Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis’ or rosy-scales fairy wrasse. A fish which is found approximately 1,000 kilometres further south in the Chagos Archipelago islands.
This is important, as doctoral student of the University of Sydney, Yi-Kai Tea has explained: “What we previously thought was one widespread species of fish, is actually two different species, each with a potentially much more restricted distribution”. Furthermore: “This exemplifies why describing new species, and taxonomy in general, is important for conservation and biodiversity management.”
The rose-veiled fairy wrasse is well established on reefs of the ‘twilight’ or ‘mesophotic’ zone, which refers to the lack of light and ranges from 50 to 150 metres beneath the Indian Ocean’s surface. The recent surveys conducted here by Hope for Reefs, found an abundance of the wrasse, but also up to 8 other species that could potentially all be new to science.
The fact that Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa seems to be doing well doesn’t necessarily negate all concern. As Luiz Rocha a co-director of the Hope for Reefs initiative, has pointed out: “Though the species is quite abundant and therefore not currently at a high risk of over-exploitation, it’s still unsettling when a fish is already being commercialised before it even has a scientific name.”
It’s no secret or surprise that fairy wrasse are some of the most popular fish amongst aquarium hobbyists. They are a pinnacle ornamental fish, and are usually one of the last to be introduced to a marine set up. Unfortunately, they are notoriously difficult to breed captively. So much so that it has yet to be done successfully.
The closest instances of captive-bred tropical wrasses that have occurred, are those from Rising Tides Conservation (the subject of my next article for TankBred) with the ‘melanurus wrasse’ (Halichoeres melanurus) which followed the successful rearing of the ‘cleaner wrasse’ (Labroides dimidiatus) by Bali Aquarich. As you’ll notice from the latin names, neither of these species are those of the much coveted fairy wrasse genus (Cirrhilabrus).
The difficulties around breeding any wrasse are numerous. The biggest obstacle is often what to feed fish larvae when it first hatches, and what else it requires as a food source and at what period in its development.
The discovery of the rose-veiled fairy wrasse invites speculation as to how much biodiversity we still have to officially document. It’s hardly surprising when more than 80% of our oceans are yet to be mapped, explored or seen by us.
Fairy wrasse in general present an exciting opportunity for facilities geared towards captive breeding – such as ourselves at TankBred – with worries about this species exploitation only serving as a motive to streamline a successful breeding and rearing process.