Keeping the Red headed fairy wrasse

Dave Wolfenden sings the praises of the Redheaded fairy wrasse — a resourceful fish that can disguise its smell to confuse predators.

For many reef enthusiasts, fairy wrasses of the genus Cirrhilabrus are ideal. Many species not only have stunning colours, but grow to a manageable size and have an easy-going disposition.

An inhabitant of the Western Central Pacific Ocean, and primarily exported from Indonesia, the Redheaded fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus solorensis) is no exception. The species lives reef or lagoon habitats usually more than 20m/66’.

It’s a daytime feeder so at night secretes a mucus cocoon around its body, as does the closely-related parrotfish. This appears to act as a chemical ‘cloak’, disguising the smell of the fish from its night-time predators, including various species of mollusc.

Rarely more than 10cm/4” long, individuals within the species have highly variable colours and this has confused marine biologists trying to identify specimens.

Typical males sport an orange head with an iridescent blue flank merging into a deep purple dorsal surface and a white belly. Females may show a variety of shades of orange, although some appear to possess similar patterning to males.

All individuals have red eyes, inspiring another common name — the Red-eyed fairy wrasse.

It is also known in the trade as the Clown, Solar, Solon, Tricolor and even Koi wrasse among many others — which doesn’t help with positive ID of any specimens. The Redheaded fairy wrasse’s scientific name means ‘from the Sun, with curly lips’.

When selecting a specimen, observe it in your dealer’s tank. Is it bright, alert and active? Although this can be considered hardy many specimens suffer during shipment and it may pay to delay purchase until an individual settles in the shop for a week or so.

Many feel that a short quarantine of a week or so, maybe less, is preferable to the usually recommended several weeks, on the basis that these sociable animals acclimatise much better within an established system among other fish. Some even advocate dispensing with quarantine altogether, opting instead for short freshwater dips, before adding immediately to the main tank. Perhaps that’s a risky approach.

Aquarium needs
Although fairly diminutive, C. solorensis still needs considerable room and an aquarium of at least 1m/39” long or more. These are extremely active fish and require ample space for their natural behaviour.

The aquarium should be aquascaped with sufficient live rock to provide plenty of hiding places into which the day-active wrasse can retreat at night, as well as explore during the day. Not only that, but live rock can help generate natural plankton populations to supplement the fish’s captive diet.

These fish are notorious for jumping out of the aquarium and, if keeping C. solorensis, a cover glass or lid is highly recommended! With many modern reef aquaria being open topped, this species isn’t suitable for all systems.

Feeding needs
In the wild, C. solorensis feeds on zooplankton, courtesy of its tiny mouth. In the aquarium it generally adapts easily to prepared aquarium foods and, once settled in, will demonstrate pretty catholic tastes. Frozen feeds, such as Artemia, plankton and Mysis, should be readily consumed, as will more artificial diets such as flakes or freeze-dried foods. Aim for variety.

This species of fairy wrasse shouldn’t prove a finicky eater. Aim to feed at least twice a day and bear in mind that, in the wild, such fish will be feeding more or less constantly during daylight.

Live rock and/or a refugium will help and can generate natural plankton populations which the fish will exploit to supplement its diet.

Aquarium compatibility
C. solorensis tends to be sociable with most popular aquarium fish groups and will display best with suitable individuals of other species, but take care when either choosing tank mates for a resident specimen, or adding an individual to an established system.

It tends to get along with most other members of the genus, but don’t overcrowd the aquarium as there may be issues with competition for food.

Best avoid housing more than one male in the same tank, as aggressive behaviours may result.

Due to their size, they are unsuitable for keeping with larger predatory fish, such as lionfish, many triggers, certain larger wrasses, puffers and groupers – which will view them as colourful dinners! Other non-predatory tank mates can also cause problems. Some more boisterous tangs, for example, may harass and startle the wrasse, which can then become very stressed.

Otherwise, C. solorensis should co-habit comfortably with most other reef aquarium fish, including damsels, gobies, cardinals, blennies and pygmy angels.

Generally this is an invertebrate-safe species and, due to its feeding ecology, won’t tend to peck at corals or other sessile invertebrates. Larger individuals may, however, nibble at some more delicate crustaceans, such as cleaner shrimp.

All fairy wrasses exhibit, to some degree, visible external differences between the sexes and sexual dichromatism (varying coloration between males and females).

As with other wrasse, they are protogynous (female first) hermaphrodites — starting out as females and changing when conditions permit. This depends on the structure of their haremic system.

The fish are naturally found in small groups of females dominated by a single male who assumes the lion’s share of breeding rights. So called ‘satellite’ (sneaky) males which don’t control a harem may manage to fertilise some eggs during the spawning ritual, which includes the dominant male exhibiting rapid flashing (colour changes).

Should the dominant male be removed from the group, one of the most dominant females undergoes a sex change.

To date, there have been no reports of this species being captive bred.

Sexing this fish can be challenging, due to great colour diversity within the species. Males are larger and may have longer pelvic fins. Differences in coloration may be subtle as males and females may exhibit similar patterns, although males tend to show more vivid colours.

Did you know?
Fairy wrasses are one of only a handful of other closely related genera of wrasses which have a specially adapted eye. The cornea (the outermost transparent layer) is divided into what are essentially two lenses and the central ‘lens’ appears a nifty evolutionary adaptation for close-range detection of their tiny prey!

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