Fairy Wrasse
Cirrhilabrus solorensis
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciformes
Family: Labridae
Genus: Cirrhilabrus

Cirrhilabrus is a genus of wrasses in the family Labridae, commonly known as fairy wrasse. Popular among aquaria hobbyists, the fish are generally considered reef safe and often brightly colored.



The genus Cirrhilabrus was originally named in 1850 with the description of Cirrhilabrus temmincki, followed in 1853 by the description of Cirrhilabrus solorensis. In 1957, Cirrhilabrus was revised to contain two species, C. cyanopleura and C. temminckii. He regarded Cirrhilabrus solorensis was regarded as a synonym of C. cyanopleura and corrected the spelling of C. temmincki to C. temminkii. Through the years numerous additional species have been identified as our knowledge of the genus has steadily grown. The 1980s proved to be the most exciting decade for the fans of these fish as 14 new species were described throughout that decade. Cirrhilabrus solorensis has been a confusing species to ichthyologists and currently is a member of the recognized 40 described species (Randall, pers. comm.). Although it was the second Cirrhilabrus described, most researchers have regarded this species as a synonym to Cirrhilabrus solorensis.

All species of Cirrhilabrus are characterized by having three pairs of prominent canine teeth on the upper-front jaw and one pair of projecting canine teeth on the lower-front jaw. Small conical teeth wrap the sides of the jaw leading back to large and recurved teeth in the rear three pairs (Springer & Randall, 1974). These teeth aid the fish in capturing, grasping, and pulverizing its primary food source - zooplankton.

The fairy wrasses share a unique eye with four closely related genera: Paracheilinus, Pseudocheilinus, Pseudocheilinops, and Pteragagus. The eye's cornea is divided into two segments, essentially forming a double pupil. It is believed that the center pupil is a close-up lens of sorts, enabling the fish to have a magnified view of their small prey (Baensch, 1994).

All Cirrhilabrus also have an interrupted lateral line and soft rays numbering 9 dorsal, 9 anal, 15 pectoral, 5 pelvic, 11 caudal rays, and 5 branchiostegal rays. Fin spines number 11 dorsal, 3 anal, and one pelvic (Springer & Randall, 1974). A fleshy cirrus is tipped on each of the dorsal and anal spines (Randall & Shen, 1978). Lastly, all Cirrhilabrus spp. are sexually dimorphic and dichromatic.

In the Wild


Fairy wrasses are found throughout tropical Indo-Pacific shallow waters swimming two to eight feet above sand or rocky substrata. Most fairy wrasses can be found in depths ranging from 10 - 75 feet (23 m), although some can be found deeper than 150 feet (46 m). These fish are easily frightened and hide within nearby coral or rockwork until the threat has left the area. They are diurnally active and sleep at night pinned within rockwork, protected by a mucus cocoon which they secrete around themselves. A similar cocoon in Parrotfish was demonstrated to protect the sleeping fish by masking its scent from the sensitive olfactory nerves of nocturnal predators. It is presumed that the cocoon performs the same function for Cirrhilabrus.


Generally, the fish form aggregations of one dominant male and with varying sized groups of females, and spend great portions of the day feeding on zooplankton. The males are always larger and more colorful than the females and will flash or display enhanced coloration during courtship. In all Cirrhilabrus species, the male is a different color than the female. This two phase coloration is called "dichromatic." In some cases, coloration varies within the species from location to location, and is most pronounced in Cirrhilabrus temminckii, with up to three color variations (Randall, 1992). In time, these may prove to be separate species, but are currently regarded as simple color variations.


No small males have been found; thus, it is presumed that all male Cirrhilabrus spp. are "secondary males," that is, a male resulting from a female that has undergone a sex change, also known as a "protogynous hermaphrodite" (Randall & Kuiter, 1989). The largest and most dominant females will change into a male when the social order dictates the need for a male. Some events that may trigger this conversion include, but are not limited to, death or capture of the previous male.

Spawning can occur in by several methods, with the primary mating ritual beginning with the dominant male of the territory swimming through his harem of females. As he swims through the harem, he will begin to "flash" his colors. Generally, these colors are metallic-like, usually in shades of light blue, violet, or purple. The male will then select a gravid female and make a charge at her. Presumably, this signifies to the female that she has been selected. The male will first take part in a single loop by himself, and then is followed through the second loop with the selected female. At the highest point of their ascent they release the gametes. The non-territorial dominant males may perform another type of spawning. Referred to as "streak spawning," these males will dash into the mating ritual of another pair just as the pair release their gametes. This second male will also release his sperm at this time.

In Aquaria

Fairy wrasses can do extremely well in home aquaria, provided a few requirements are met. First and foremost, the aquarium canopy must be completely enclosed. Fairy wrasses are accomplished jumpers in a home aquarium, and any uncovered aquarium is not well suited to housing one. They do not jump out of the water when in nature, but this is because they normally would have ten feet or more of water as a buffer against going airborne. In the home aquarium they are not afforded this luxury. They can frighten very easily, with some species being more prone to this than others. I have owned a C. scottorum that would leap out of the water every time I walked around the aquarium too quickly and surprised it. The tank was completely enclosed, but the fish would sound like a pinball bouncing off of the VHO lights, and land safely back into the water. If you already have a canopy for the aquarium, you should be able to easily affix lighting egg crate to the backside to enclose the canopy. If your new fairy wrasse is small enough to fit through the holes of the egg crate, it may be best to line one side of it with a net or screen. For aquarists with an open top aquarium, I recommend that they avoid this genus entirely, as it is most likely the Cirrhilabrus will die when it leaps from the aquarium.

Tank size

The next consideration would be tank size and decoration. All of the fairy wrasses stay small, but they are also very active fish. I recommend a minimum tank length of four feet. Naturally, the larger the aquarium, the better the fish will be. Mixing fairy wrasses can be done but is best attempted in a larger aquarium. A 55-gallon should be reserved for only one species of fairy wrasse. If the aquarium is too small, the fish may not mix well, and thus they should be separated. Aquariums in the size range of 300 gallons or more can safely mix several species of fairy wrasses. As a general rule, never mix two males of the same species. The tank should contain plenty of live rock, and provide plenty of hiding places. Wrasses want to have somewhere to get away from other tank mates. However, they will spend the vast majority of their time cruising around the tank, always in search of food.


Another important consideration would be the food you should feed the fairy wrasses. Generally, fairy wrasses will eventually learn to accept most any food offered. Even though they are zooplanktivores, I have seen them accept dried Nori, presumably learning this from the surgeonfish in the tank. In the beginning, however, they can be choosy eaters. Enriched brine can be used as a first food offered, as well as Mysis or plankton. Usually, a healthy Cirrhilabrus will consume these foods within a day or two of arriving into your aquarium. These foods can remain the staple of their diet, but they will eventually accept any of the other various frozen, freeze-dried, or flake foods on the market. In most situations, your fairy wrasse will supplement its diet by eating the fauna on live rock. Use caution when mixing this fish with other benthic predatory fish in smaller aquariums since they will compete with each other for food.

Companion fish

The last consideration would be tank mates. Fairy wrasses typically get along well with most fish. Only rarely will they directly attack another fish. Noted exceptions would be small Labrids added after the larger fairy wrasse is well established. They do have downfalls, however. Active fish such as surgeonfish or large angels are likely to easily startle a fairy wrasse when they dart across the aquarium. Fairy wrasses are also active feeders, so even though they shouldn't pester other passive inhabitants, it is possible they may out compete them for food. Lastly, the order of addition of these fish into the aquarium should be carefully considered. Fairy wrasses should be added before larger, or more active or aggressive fish. However, when mixing with smaller, less aggressive fish, add the fairy wrasses last. Fairy wrasses will not bother corals of any variety, nor most invertebrates. Smaller ornamental shrimp might become food if added after the wrasse is well acclimated, especially if the fish is a larger adult. My C. scottorum made quick work of several Lysmata wurdemanni that were added after the wrasse was settled into the tank. If the cleaner shrimp are present before the addition of the wrasse, then success in keeping both in the same tank is much more likely.

Species descriptions

Cirrhilabrus scottorum, or the Scott's wrasse, remains a beautiful fish. They are most common around The Coral Sea, Fiji, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia and can be found ranging from 10 - 120 feet (37 m) deep. Groups of three to five females congregate near the substrate, and the male swims approximately ten feet over them in the water column. During spawning, it is normal for this species to release their gametes about two feet above the substrate. Adult males will reach five inches (127 mm) in length, but they are known to lose their male coloration in the home aquarium. This coloration loss is hard to avoid unless an aquarium large enough to maintain a harem of the species is provided, and this usually requires about three females. Some hobbyists claim success using a mirror propped up against one side of the aquarium; however, if you wish to try this method, you should bear in mind that constant fighting with a male rival can be a source of stress and may lead to complications in the health of the fish.

Cirrhilabrus solorensis, or the Redheaded fairy wrasse, originates from Indonesia in slightly shallower water than C. scottorum. Generally, not found in depths greater than 60 feet (18 m), the male will grow to five inches (127 mm) long and will protect small to large groups of females.

One Cirrhilabrus found in Northern Indo-Pacific waters is C. jordani. It has a multitude of common names, including Jordan's wrasse, Hawaiian Fire wrasse, and Flame wrasse. As one of the common names indicates, it is found around the Hawaiian Islands, and also Johnston Atoll. It remains slightly smaller than the two previously mentioned wrasses, roughly four inches. Also, unlike the two previous wrasses, this one likes deeper water. It will rarely, if ever, be located shallower than 60 feet (18 m), and is most common below 90 feet (27 m). This greater depth translates into a rougher acclimation into captivity, and the bright lights employed on some of today's reef aquariums might be too bright for this fish. Males have been observed guarding a harem consisting of just a few females, yet also ranging up to 100 females (Michael, Coral Realm).

The Yellowfin fairy wrasse lacks some of brilliant colors of the three previous Cirrhilabrus, but it remains a beautiful fish in its own right. Its personality, however, is as equally outgoing as any other Cirrhilabrus. Cirrhilabrus flavidorsalis is one of the smaller fairies, not quite reaching four inches (102 mm) . They are imported from Indonesia and the Philippines and are found in a wide depth range varying anywhere from two feet to 120 feet (37 m) deep. It prefers back coves with rich hard and soft coral growth. Rarely does it venture above the substrate by more than three feet (Michael, Coral Realm).

The Red-Margined fairy wrasse, Cirrhilabrus rubrimarginatus, is a highly sought-after, yet rarely imported, specimen. The lack of importation is likely due to the depths at which this fish spends the majority of its time. They primarily reside below 100 feet (30 m) deep, and have been found in depths nearing 200 feet (61 m). The depth at which this fish is collected makes it a bad choice for today's brightly lit SPS aquariums. They are known to aggregate over open rubble and sand bottoms with small isolated patch reefs. They are among the largest Cirrhilabrus, approaching six inches (152 mm) in length. Only Cirrhilabrus melanomarginatus is larger (Randall, 1992). Specimens that make it to the aquarium trade are most likely collected from Fiji, though this species is also found in Tonga and Southern Japan. Males are usually shades of blue, purple, or red with a broad stroke of yellow just in front of the red on their tail. Yellow spots fade to pink as they stretch from the head back to the tail.

Not terribly common in the hobby, but still beautiful, is the Yellow Streaked fairy wrasse, Cirrhilabrus luteovittatus. It can be found ranging from 25 - 125 feet (38 m) deep, usually in reef lagoons in the Marshall Islands, the Philippines, and Johnston Atoll. It generally will be found in small aggregations feeding on zooplankton, and it can be kept in small aggregations in larger aquariums.

A candidate for smaller aquariums is the Lubbock's fairy wrasse, Cirrhilabrus lubbocki. Barely reaching three inches (76 mm) in length, it is found in small aggregations with similar species and other Cirrhilabrus spp., as well as Flasher Wrasses (Paracheilinus spp.). In the wild, Lubbock's are distributed from Indonesia to the Philippines, and are found in 15 - 125 feet (38 m) of water.

Cirrhilabrus pylei rarely shows up in the aquarium trade, largely due to the depths at which it is reported from - roughly 250 feet (76 m). They are found around the Philippines and New Guinea. Males will be mostly red overall with a black stripe running the length of the fish just below the dorsal fin, some violet in the face, and pelvic fins that extend all the way back to the middle of the anal fin. They are among the smaller fairy wrasses, not quite reaching four inches (102 mm) .

Quite possibly the rarest of all fairy wrasses is the Rhomboid fairy wrasse, or Cirrhilabrus rhomboidalis. Known only from depths in excess of 125 feet (38 m) in the Marshall Islands, the hobbyist who acquires this one has paid handsomely. It is another of the smaller Cirrhilabrus, not quite reaching five inches (127 mm) .

The "crown jewel" of fairy wrasses and most likely the wrasse people are discussing when they mention the "holy grail" of wrasses is Cirrhilabrus lineatus, or the Lined fairy wrasse. It is most commonly found deeper than 100 feet (30 m) along the Great Barrier Reef on the outer reef slopes. Even though it is imported more so than Cirrhilabrus rhomboidalis, it is equally highly priced and more sought after. It is of an average size for fairy wrasses, not quite reaching five inches (127 mm) . As the species name may imply to some, lineatus comes from the Latin word linea, meaning line (Randall & Lubbock, 1982).


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