Humphead Wrasse: Characteristics, reproduction, threats and more….

The humphead wrasse is one of the most striking fish in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. Its colors, large size and shape have led to consider it as the most striking of the labridae family, which is characterized by the amazing color of its members.

Many species of this family are considered as collectible species because of the colors of their scales, being one of the favorites to find by divers in many regions of the world.

This is because, in areas where contact with humans is not yet at any time, humphead wrasses actively seek tactile interaction, and have even come to form links with individual divers, whom they recognize and even seek. They approach divers, constantly using their itinerant eyes and examining their movements to make sure there is no danger.


Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordata Class: Actinopterygii  Order: Perciformes Family: Labridae Gender: Cheilinus Species: C. undulatus

Labridae Family

The Labridae family is made-up by about 60 genera and more than 500 fish species. These fish are found in all tropical regions of the world. They are often very colorful and many, though not all, adapt well to the life in captivity. There are many variations within the family.

The size of these fish varies from a few centimeters to more than 2 meterHumphead Wrasse: the stunning Moon Wrasses in length; some have cylindrical shapes while others have a deeper body. There may be significant variations in terms of colors and shapes in species of the same genera which has made them a challenge of identification. There are stories of two fish of the same species that look so different that they had originally been scientifically described as two separate species.

The Labridae Family’s Main Traits

Like many marine fish, the Labridae use their pectoral fins to move. Many species are buried in the sand often agitating the  gravel. They are generally good for reef aquariums, often eating small crustaceans.

They appear in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes, often varying considerably within each species. This morphological diversity corresponds to the wide variety of prey they consume.

Let’s start mentioning the River labridae which can be fishivores, zooplanctívores, molluscs, herbivores,  polyquette predators, decapod crab predators and coral predators, as well as many others. Many are organized into harem-based social systems and hermaphroditism is common. Finally, as suggested by their various eating habits, they perform many important ecological functions for the reefs tropical regions’ reefs and temperate regions around the world.

Most are quite small, usually below 20 cm. The smallest species, Minilabrus striatus, reaches a maximum length of only 4.5 cm. The genera Pseudocheilinus and Doratonotus contain several other dwarf  labridae. One species, Conniella apterygia, is so small that it lacks even pelvic fins and a supporting skeleton. The largest, Cheilinus undulatus, can reach a length of about 2.3 m and weighs more than 150 kg.

These animals are more easily identified by their pointed snouts and prominent canine teeth on the front of the jaws, which are often projected forward in conjunction with a protractile mouth, cycloid scales and a single continuous dorsal fin that lacks an obvious notch between the soft and spiny parts. The sideline can be continuous or interrupted and it’s worth noting that they present a wide variety of colors and shapes.

Knife fish are elongated and laterally compressed, while members of Cheilinus, Choerodon, and many Bodianus are large and robust. However, most are elongated and sharp at both ends, often referred to as cigar-shaped. Cigarette-shaped fish are found in the genera Thalassoma, Halichoeres and Labroides.

Often, there is a considerable diversity of colors and shapes within each species. As in parrotfish, some advance through «phases», and each phase corresponds to a change in morphology (shape and color). Dominant males (and sometimes females) are the most distinctive colors, with complex patterns of red, yellow, green, blue and black.

Subordinate males and females are smaller than dominant individuals and are often grayish with cryptic patterns. The youngest specimens’ body color varies from bright yellow and orange to dull gray and brown, and some have camouflage patterns. Some exhibit sexual dimorphism (differences between male and female).

Let’s meet one of them

The Humphead Wrasse’s Main Characteristics

The Humphead Wrasse can be recognized instantly by its size, color and shape. It is one of the largest reef fish in the world and some specimens can grow up to 2.30 meters, and weigh 190 kilograms.It has full lips and a hump on the head that is similar to a Napoleonic hat, which gives rise to its name and that, becomes more prominent with age.

The colors of this species vary with age and sex. Males range from a bright electric blue to green or violet blue. Adult males develop a black stripe along the sides, with blue spots on their body scales and blue scribbles on the head. Young specimens can be identified by their pale greenish color and two black lines that run behind the eye. The females, both young and old, are red or orange at the top of their bodies, and from red-orange to white below.

Humphead Wrasse: Habitat and Distribution

This species is found in all regions of the Indo-Pacific, from the Red Sea and the coast of East Africa, to the Central Pacific, from southern Japan to New Caledonia. It is rare to see them in South East Asia due to trade in Asian restaurants and illegal fishing, but it is very common in the Red Sea and the Maldives due to park ranger control.


The Napoleon fish (as it can also be called) is found mainly at the edges of coral reefs and descents. Young specimen are usually between the branched corals of shallow lagoons, while adults prefer the upper margins of pinnacles, clear lagoons and steep slopes of coral reefs, at a depth of at least 100 meters, but sometimes up to 160 .

They move in shallow bays during the day to feed, and tend to move into deeper waters as they grow and get bigger.

Ecological Considerations

Although the Napoleon fish has a wide distribution, it has never been a common animal and recent reports have revealed a critical decline in its population. The features of its life cycle make this species extremely vulnerable to exploitation and fishing. Cyanide is normally used to catch this fish, because live fish are difficult to hunt in any other way. This is a practice that destroys coral reefs.

The species is located on the “Red List of Endangered Species” of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and appears as threatened and therefore to be protected in the reports resulting from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

IUCN specialists are currently working on the collection of data on populations and actions aimed at increasing people’s awareness of the need to protect this creature. Trade restrictions are particularly important since this species cannot be bred in captivity, and all people who have seen specimens in restaurants and fish markets should know that they come from nature, and therefore sometimes reveal the violation of regulations existing by the captors.

Traditionally, the meat of this fish has been much appreciated and more recently it has become one of the largest and most prestigious species in the luxury food industry, due to the increasing popularity of the humphead wrasse in many East Asian countries.

It’s sadly more frequent in small aquariums of seafood restaurants in Hong Kong, where they can be purchased at a price of up to $ 100 per kilogram, or up to 400 for a set of lips. As their numbers decrease, the rarity of the species is likely to condition an even greater increase in prices.

However, the most important thing is to persevere in the generation of awareness and solidarity with the causes that seek the conservation of the fish.

What exactly happens?

Nowadays, many reef fish are captured faster than they can naturally recover, which results in the continuous decline of their population. In Southeast Asia, more than 120 million people depend on fishing for food and income, and live reef fish are an important component.

The depletion of reef fishery resources could be a huge challenge for the food stability and livelihood of these people. Unsustainable consumption of live reef fish deprives them of their natural resources and potential food, and also eliminates key species from the marine ecosystem.

The species in coral reefs are intimately linked through the food chain and many of these chains intersect to form a food web. Make the population of species decrease

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The Humphead Wrasse’s  Feeding Habits

The Humphead Wrasse is a carnivorous creature that eats during the day. They can be seen feeding on crustaceans, other fish, starfish, hedgehogs and crabs , crushing the shells to reach the meat inside. They also crush large pieces of dead coral debris with their teeth to feed on burrowing mussels and worms.

They are also one of the few predators of toxic animals such as sea hares, chestfish and the «crown of thorns» starfish , and are therefore an important part of the marine food chain in maintaining a reef balanced and healthy coral.

The Humphead Wrasse’s Common Behavior

The Napoleon fish spends most of the day feeding. Adults are generally lonely and spend the day wandering the reef and then return to particular caves or shelves, where they rest during the night.

In some areas the specimens are very curious, but in those where they are hunted they tend to be very shy. The specimens that inhabit the Red Sea are characterized by being very curious since they are fed with hard boiled eggs. However, today it is forbidden to feed the Napoleon fish with eggs, due to the high level of cholesterol found in dead specimens in the area.

Let’s watch a very touching video

How Does the Humphead Wrasse Reproduce?

Napoleon’s couples spawn together as part of a larger mating group that can consist of more than 100 individuals. Planktonic eggs are released into the water, and once the larvae have hatched they are placed on the substrate. Adult females are able to change sex (hermaphrodites) but the triggers of this development aren’t totally known yet.

The  fertilization process  begins when the male points his anal fin down and folds the tail and dorsal fins, on its back against the body, while hovering just above the ocean floor . The females then rise up as the male swims past, releasing gametes for fertilization near the water’s surface . Therefore, the lifecycle continues, beginning with the combination of the gametes followed by mitosis in the gametic lifecycle.

After the fertilization of the eggs, the specifically chosen current takes these eggs to float in the epipelagic zone, or near the surface of the open ocean . After the offspring are hatched in the epipelagic zone, the larvae bid their time and float until they become large enough to swim down to a coral reef environment.

The Humphead Wrasse’s Life cycle

These fish have extremely long life since they are known for living  for at least 30 years and it takes them about five to seven years to reach sexual maturity, which means they are too slow to increase populations.

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Other Species Of  Wrasse Fish

Floral wrasse (Cheilinus chlorourus)


Males of this species can reach 45 cm in total length.


Tropical reefs; at depths between 1 and 30 m.2 Its distribution corresponds to the Indian and Pacific oceans: it is found from the coasts of East Africa to the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu, by the north to the Ryukyu islands and by the south to New Caledonia and Rapa.

Broomtail wrasse

Males of this species can reach 50 cm in total length. They inhabit tropical reefs; at depths between 2 and 30 m the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Oman.

Banded Maori, Banded Maori-wrasse Redbreasted wrasse (Cheilinus fasciatus)

This is a wrasse whose color varies from brown to black with 6-7 whitish vertical bars or bands on the sides. Additionally it has a bright reddish red area on the head and fine orange lines that radiate from the eyes. Large adults have a prominent lower jaw and males develop elongated caudal fin lobes.

Let’s meet them


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