'Pairing' Wrasses: That's Not How Any of this Works!

First, we really need some understanding of how wrasses interact and live in their natural environment. In the ocean, most genera of wrasses live...
  1. It is something I read often: “Where can I buy a female for my male ____ wrasse?” Or: “I want to buy another ____ wrasse and pair them up!” Wait! Time out for a minute!

    First, we really need some understanding of how wrasses interact and live in their natural environment. In the ocean, most genera of wrasses live in harems, which consists of a group of females to one dominant male. Often, there are a few transitional males in this group as well, which are essentially males-in-waiting – waiting for their chance to overtake the current or become the new dominant male. Within this harem, there is an established hierarchy. The hierarchy exists by the dominance of the terminal male and submission of the females and transitional males. It is this last part which is key; there are no bonded or mated relationships. Quite simply, wrasses do not form pairs! Think similar to Anthias here; not like Clownfish.

    A Natural Harem of Filamented Flashers Wrasses, Dominant Male in Center. (a few other species are also present here, notably female C. cyanopleura)

    Now, let us go a step further and explore the female-male aspect. Wrasses are protogynous hermaphrodites. Settled as a juvenile, they all start as female. Females then transition to male in the wild as harem conditions and the environment allow. As females transition, they become a transitional male, or sometimes called a sub-male. At the sub-male phase, a reversal back to female is technically possible and occasionally happens. If the transition progresses, eventually the state of terminal male is reached. It is at this point the process is, in fact, terminal; reversal back to female is not possible.

    Essentially, all the females in the harem are continuously attempting to become a transitional and eventually dominant male. It is only the hierarchy, and mostly the current dominant male, who prevent this with overriding behavior. The sub males in the harem wait, until the dominant male perishes or until a sub male can out rival the dominant male when challenged. In many ways, it is a lot like a king on a throne; there cannot be a new king until the old one is removed or leaves the throne. And everyone wants to be king!

    In aquaria, it is rather difficult to successfully duplicate nature. All females tend to eventually transition to male, regardless of the presence of a more dominant male. Often, when this occurs in the presence of a dominant male, the new male may end up with best coloration. However, the survival of the old male is always questionable. Sometimes removal of one male becomes necessary for obvious aggression. For these reasons, I no longer bother with more than one wrasse of a single species. I have attempted to keep a male/female pair/trio from the Cirrhilabrus, Halichoeres, and Paracheilinus genera, only to always result in all females turning to male with time. On more than one occasion in both the Cirrhilabrus and Halichoeres genera, I have had males/females spawning with regularity, only for the females to transition to male a few months down the road. It simply is not worth the effort and enduing frustration to attempt these pairs/trios/harems in captivity for the casual reefer.

    As an alternative to keeping pairs/trios/harems of wrasses in aquaria, an aquarist may wish to keep single wrasses of each species mixed with others. So long as selections are made carefully, avoiding certain species and in accords with some simple guidelines, the results will be rewarding. Each wrasse is highly likely to eventually transition to male, providing the best coloration. As an added bonus, the hierarchy of the mixed group lends to displays of finnage and “flashing” of colors on frequent occasions for delightful viewing. However, the only catch with this approach is that some patience may be required. If wrasses are purchased as juveniles or females, it may be a while before they transition into males. This time frame is widely variable and depends not only on the fish’s age and maturity but also the hierarchy established amongst the tank mates. The timing is complicated, but it could be as short as a few weeks to as long as many, many months.

    So please, don’t try to ‘pair’ your wrasses! At best, it may work for a while, but even in those circumstances time is unfortunately against you. Nature always finds a way!

    A Group of Three Female Macropharyngodon bipartitus.

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    About Author

    Hunter Hammond is a marine hobbyist who currently keeps a 270g peninsula reef in his living room featuring numerous rare wrasses. He is a leading expert in the captive care of all reef-safe wrasses. He has been in the marine hobby since 2009 and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his devoted partner and their Thai Ridgeback dog. Hunter’s professional career is in the aerospace propulsion engine industry as a structures engineer.


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  1. mdbannister
  2. Phil Cusimano
    Couldn't agree more about trying to pair wrasses for the casual reefer. In my humble opinion when it to wrasses it's best to keep carefully selected single wrasse species. I've only kept 2 different species at any one time. Perhaps with my new tank build, I'll just make it a reef aquarium with a number of single wrasses species ... that would be a different perspective than keeping all different family of fish. :)
      evolved likes this.
  3. DracoKat
    my LFS has "mated pair of leopard wrasses" for sale, they'll only sell the two together. Does that mean these are a mated pair or should I avoid things like this at stores?
    1. evolved
      Unless they've been witnessed to spawn together (unlikely), it's just a marketing term. In which case, I would avoid.
      DracoKat likes this.
  4. Deinonych
    Great article. Related question regarding flasher wrasses and QT. I have noticed, almost without exception, that newly-acquired terminal male flashers will "revert" to sub-male in QT, losing their filaments and tail streamers about a week or so after acquisition. I've observed this with P. cyaneus, P. mccoskeri and P. filamentosus specifically. They eventually return to terminal phase, but it's typically several months later, and seemingly not to the full brilliance of the original TP state when acquired. Have you experienced this, and how do you prevent it?
      evolved likes this.
    1. evolved
      Thank you. I've responded to your question here: http://www.reef2reef.com/threads/flasher-wrasses-qt.259656/
      Deinonych likes this.
  5. Purpletank
    Thank you for your article on Wrasse pairing. I do not have any Wrasses because of their natural aggression and my small 38g tank. I always enjoy learning more about marine life. It's amazing to me that fish can change gender like they do.
      evolved likes this.
  6. mysterybox
    Hunter, while I concur with everything that you have stated with those species of wrasses at this point my male and female Anampses twistii have been together since 11/2014 and my female and sub male (soon to be terminal) have been together since January 2015. I realize that there is still more time, however, for things could change. My "pair" of kuitier remained male and female for 3 years until the male harassed the female to death.
      evolved likes this.
    1. evolved
      Anampses are probably the one real exception. It's pretty difficult to get a truly terminal male, and if you do, they're likely to keep the females at bay.
      Macropharyngodon are almost an exception as well, but stories like you've shared and similar tend to be pretty common with them. It's not as much of a guarantee with them, but still not worth the trouble as far as I'm concerned.
  7. Roberts reef
    Very accurate I would say thanks for the info
      evolved and TUSI like this.
  8. reefstacks
    Very informative and well written article! It explains a lot regarding my tank :rolleyes:
      evolved and TUSI like this.
  9. urbaneks
    Hunter - Great write up. I feel fortunate to have you here in our local reefing community.
      evolved and TUSI like this.
    1. evolved
      Thanks Brad.
  10. Vu337
    I put in 3 leopard wrasse on Friday and they still in the sand, should I be worried? The turning male blue star is chasing them when I just put them in
      TUSI likes this.
    1. evolved
      Need some more details here; hop on over to the "Wrasse Lover's" thread with that question: http://www.reef2reef.com/threads/the-wrasse-lovers-thread.113942/