Fairy Wrasses:
Newcomers to the Hobby


The members of the genus Cirrhilabrus are widely known as the Fairy Wrasses and have recently gained popularity among aquarists, reefkeepers and divers. The genus belongs to the family Labridae and includes 43 species from the Indo-West Pacific, the Red Sea, the Hawaiian Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Society, Pitcairn and Tuamotu Islands to the east. A few species are widely distributed, but most are limited to a small geographic area and/or are found only in a deepwater habitat. Some have not yet been reported outside the locality where they were originally discovered. They are known to form harems comprised of a large dominant male, and several smaller females and juveniles; each stage of their development, from juveniles to full adults, is usually marked by different coloration. The males of each species have an ability to change their coloration to a more gorgeous one, with brilliantly colored dots, lines and areas on their body and fins as they "flash," especially when courting. Such coloration is widely believed to attract the females of the same species to spawn eggs in the water column. The males' movement is very quick and they are known to change colors rapidly and repeatedly, especially in the evening and early morning. Divers will be astonished to see their flashings, but aquarists in their homes can also witness their amazing behavior even when the male is kept without a mate in a captive environment.

Figure 1 (left). A Cirrhilabrus adornatus, male, 65mm, from Indonesia. These are a rarely sold species collected for sale only from western Sumatra and are one of the species that has recently entered the aquarium trade. Figure 2 (right). A C. johnsoni, male, 65mm, from the Marshall Islands. It is not uncommon in its natural habitat but is very rarely sold and commands a very high price because collectors do not often go to far away places such as the Marshall Islands. It is imported for the aquarium trade via Hawaii.

Cirrhilabrus Availability in Japan
adornatus - (Randall & Kunzmann, 1998) - Sumatra, Indonesia Very rarely seen in the aquarium trade; only males are available; rather expensive.
aurantidorsalis - (Allen & Kuiter, 1999) - Sulawesi, Indonesia Very common; inexpensive.
balteatus - (Randall, 1988) - Marshall
Very rare; very expensive.
bathyphilus - (Randall & Nagareda, 2002) - Coral Sea & Vanuatu Very rare from the Coral Sea; fairly regularly shipped from Vanuatu; variable in coloration; very expensive.
blatteus - (Springer & Randall, 1974) - Red Sea Not available.
brunneus - (Allen, 2006) - Kalimantan, Indonesia Not available but very similar specimens (same species?) are available occasionally from Sulawesi; rather expensive.
claire - (Randall & Pyle, 2001) - Cook
Not available.
condei - (Allen & Randall, 1996) - Papua New Guinea & Vanuatu Rare, only from Vanuatu; rather expensive.
cyanopleura - (Bleeker, 1851) - West
Very common; variable in coloration; cheap.
earlei - (Randall & Pyle, 2001) - Palau & Marshalls Not available.
exquisitus - (Smith, 1957) - Indo-West
Very common; variable in coloration; cheap.
filamentosus - (Klausewitz, 1976) - Java Sea, Indonesia Very common; cheap.
flavidorsalis - (Randall & Carpenter, 1980) - Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia & Palau Common; cheap.
joanallenae - (Allen, 2000) - Sumatra, Indonesia Scarce; inexpensive.
johnsoni - (Randall, 1988) - Marshalls & Palau Very rare; very expensive.
jordani - (Snyder, 1904) - Hawaiian, Johnston & Midway Islands Rather rare; rather expensive.
katherinae - (Randall, 1992) - West
Very rare; fairly expensive (actually, some are variants of temminckii).
katoi - (Senou & Hirata, 2000) -
Very rare; very expensive.
laboutei - (Randall & Lubbock, 1982) - South Pacific Fairly common; expensive.
lanceolatus - (Randall & Masuda, 1991) - Japan Not available.
lineatus - (Randall & Lubbock, 1982) - South Pacific Fairly common; rather expensive.
lubbocki - (Randall & Carpenter, 1980) - Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia & Palau Very common; cheap.
lunatus - (Randall & Masuda, 1991) - West Pacific, Indonesia & New Caledonia Rare; variable in coloration; only from Sulawesi and Cebu; rather expensive.
luteovittatus - (Randall, 1988) -
Common; inexpensive.
marjorie - (Allen, Randall & Carlson, 2003) - Fiji Not available.
melanomarginatus - (Randall & Shen, 1978) - Japan to Philippines & Vietnam Very rare; very expensive.
morrisoni - (Allen, 1999) - off Western Australia Not available.
punctatus - (Randall & Kuiter, 1989) - South Pacific Fairly common; highly variable in coloration; rather expensive.
pylei - (Allen & Randall, 1996) - Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Indonesia & Cebu Rather rare (Sulawesi- fairly common; Vanuatu- rare; Cebu- extremely rare); very expensive.
randalli - (Allen, 1995) - off Western Australia Not available.
rhomboidalis - (Randall, 1988) - Marshalls & Palau Rather rare; expensive.
roseafascia - (Randall & Lubbock, 1982) - New Caledonia, Palau, Fiji, Samoa & Cebu Very rare; from Cebu only; rather expensive.
rubrimarginatus - (Randall, 1992) - West & South Pacific Very common; not expensive.
rubripinnis - (Randall & Carpenter, 1980) - Philippines & Indonesia Very common; cheap.
rubrisquamis - (Randall & Emery, 1983) - Chagos, Maldives & Sri Lanka Rather rare; rather expensive.
rubriventralis - (Springer & Randall, 1974) - Red Sea, Oman & Sri Lanka Very common; probably all from Sri Lanka; cheap.
sanguineus - (Cornic, 1987) -
Scarce; extremely expensive.
scottorum - (Randall & Pyle, 1988) - South Pacific Fairly common; expensive.
solorensis - (Bleeker, 1853) -
Very common; inexpensive.
temminckii - (Bleeker, 1853) - West Pacific & Western Australia Very rare, mainly from Bali, Sulawesi & Malaysia; rather expensive.
tonozukai - (Allen & Kuiter, 1999) - Indonesia & Palau Fairly common; vary from cheaper to rather expensive.
walindi - (Allen & Randall, 1996) - Papua New Guinea Not available.
walshi - (Randall & Pyle, 2001) -
Not available.

Several species are very popular among marine aquarists and some are usually obtainable at reasonable prices, while some have not yet found their way into the aquarium trade because of their rarity, deep-water habitat or very limited distribution in remote areas. Some 15 years have passed since I first purchased specimens of Cirrhilabrus that were sold simply as "wrasse species" at a retailer. As little as 10 years ago there was no good book available that showed the many Cirrhilabrus species, and many incorrect names, including "parrotfishes," were applied to these species in various literature published in the early 1990s. Rudie Kuiter's magnificent wrasse book (2002) shows many fairy wrasses for the first time with numerous color illustrations, and this book alone has successfully created many new enthusiasts for the species. People who love the fairies suddenly increased in number, as did columns devoted only to this genus on several websites. Many articles specifically detailing the genus have appeared in several popular magazines, and now its species have become very popular among reefkeepers as they are recognized as "reef-safe" fishes. Yes, they can be great additions to any type of aquaria with or without live corals, fish-only or reef tanks.

Cirrhilabrus species are easy to keep in aquariums that provide enough open space for free-swimming, and many crevices for hiding. They are plankton feeders in the sea and feed well on most prepared foods shortly after introduction to captivity, and many species also are very peaceful. Some Cirrhilabrus species may take foods directly from their keeper's hand. They can be kept in small tanks of 60 x 30 x 30 cm minimum dimensions, but it is advisable to prepare larger tanks to maintain them for a long period of time. There is no need to provide them with a sand bed; they are not sand sleepers but produce a cocoon while they are sleeping, most often among or under rocks or corals. Any tank housing these wrasses should be covered, because they may jump out of the water when danger approaches. Now let me discuss some of this genera's rare or even newly introduced species.

Species Discussion

While generally not available until 2005, the Adorned (or Decorated) Fairy Wrasse, Cirrhilabrus adornatus (see Figure 1), comes from the western coast of Sumatra and its offshore islands. The males are snow white, have two striking red markings on their back and have a red dorsal fin. It was recently described and was first regarded as a small species, but one of my friends in Thailand informed me that he has seen several males over 10 cm long. Females are red overall with a white abdomen and a black spot on their caudal peduncle, like other females of most species in this genus. This fish was first discovered by the famous German diver, Helmut Debelius, so it is also commonly called Debelius' Fairy Wrasse. The species first entered the aquarium trade in 2005 as far as I know, but only a few have been shipped to Japan. Only males were available initially, but in the USA females also are available nowadays.

Johnson's Fairy Wrasse, C. johnsoni (Figure 2) is sometimes a fairly shallow water inhabitant with some encountered at 15-30 meters depth but most will be found at 60-75 meters depth. Their distribution is restricted to the Marshall Islands and Palau, so it is not commonly seen in the aquarium trade. Only recently have those from the Marshall Islands gained popularity with the help of a few enthusiastic collectors at great depths, but they still are rarely sold.

The Exquisite Fairy Wrasse, C. exquisitus (Figure 3), is a beautiful species with an unusual black spot on its caudal peduncle even in adult males. It is widely distributed from African coasts and throughout Indian Ocean islands, southeast Asia, southern Japan, Micronesia, the west and east sides of Australia and out to the Tuamotu Islands in the east. Several morphs are known in this species and some ichthyologists hope to divide it into several distinct species. Males from the Indian Ocean have a red marking behind their eye, while those from the Pacific possess red outer margins on their dorsal and anal fins and lack the red marking behind their eyes. Males from Fiji and Rowley Shoals also are distinctly colored but currently no diagnostic differences are known by ichthyologists.

The Scotts' Fairy Wrasse, C. scottorum (Figure 4), often called the Velvet wrasse, is another variably colored species that ranges widely throughout the South Pacific from the Great Barrier Reef to the Society, Tuamotu and Pitcairn Islands. It can reach a full adult size of up to 14 cm in length. It usually has a red tail and often has a red blotch on its side, but some individuals are known to lack these blotches. The very closely related C. melanomarginatus, from the northwestern Pacific, has a green tail. They do not co-occur in any range, and some "original species" were divided into these two distinct species. Females of both species are almost identical in appearance.

Figure 3. A C. exquisitus, male, 10cm, from Kenya. A truly wide ranging species of the genus.

Figure 4. A Cirrhilabrus scottorum, male, 14cm, from the Cook Islands. As seen in this photo, fully grown males have a filamentous tip on their caudal fin.

Some members of Cirrhilabrus have a very limited distribution, and C. sanguineus (Red-blotched Fairy Wrasse) is a perfect example (Figure 5). It was described from Mauritius and is very rarely seen in its natural habitat and, therefore, seldom enters the aquarium trade. I've seen this species at retailers only three times in the 15 years I've studied these fish, and I was fortunate enough to purchase a small male and a larger one. The males have an outstanding purple-red area on the middle of their sides and their background is pale pinkish-white. A dark grey area behind the head and a long tail also are characteristics of large males. When the male is excited, a pale stripe appears on each side of its head and his pelvic fins change from pinkish to a deeper orange color. This behavior occurs within just seconds, and they soon return to their normal coloration.

Figures 5 & 6. Both photos show a Cirrhilabrus sanguineus, 8cm, from Mauritius (same specimen). While the male is displaying, seen here in the photo on the right, some areas change to different colors.

The Temminck's Fairy Wrasse, C. temminckii (Figures 7, 8 & 9 below) has several color morphs that have confused many divers and aquarists, and several ichthyologists believe that the species should be divided, but it is now widely regarded as a single species. This species is known from the western Pacific including southern Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Western Australia. Two separate groups exist, with "Group A" being known only from southern Japan to Malaysia and the Indonesian region. Their stripes are known to turn blue when the male is excited and thus members of "Group A" are often called Blue-stripe Fairy Wrasses; they have two distinct stripes on their side. "Group B" hails from Australia, and they have a red & white body. Three species are closely related to C. temminckii: C. katherinae, C. punctatus and C. balteatus.

Figures 7 & 8. A C. temminckii, "Group A," from Indonesia, male (same specimen), 8cm. The right shot illustrates its spawning display coloration from which its common name, the Blue-stripe Fairy Wrasse, is derived.

Figure 9. A C. temminckii, "Group A," male, 12cm, from Malaysia. This species has an entirely dark body with reddish stripes on its side that can turn blue.

Figure 10. A C. katherinae, male, 6cm, from Cebu.
Figure 11. A C. punctatus, male, 14cm, from Australia.

Figure 12. A C. punctatus, male, 12cm, from Vanuatu. They are often mistaken for C. temminckii and are sometimes called the Port Vila Fairy Wrasse after Port Vila, which is located on Vanuatu.

Katherine's Fairy Wrasse, C. katherinae (Figure 10) is found throughout the western Pacific, including southern Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and the Mariana Islands. It is very similar to C. temminckii but has a black spot on the base of its pectoral fin. Cirrhilabrus temminckii does not possess such a spot there but the males shown here (Figures 7, 8 & 9) have the spot, so it's likely that these variants will be separated into a distinct species in the future.

Figure 13. A rare import to the trade, this Cirrhilabrus balteatus (male, 11cm) hails from the Marshall Islands.

The Dotted or Fine-spotted Fairy Wrasse, C. punctatus (Figures 11 & 12 above) comes from the South Pacific, mainly from the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and Fiji, and it will soon be shipped to the aquarium trade from Vanuatu as well. This species is highly variable individually, but males from New Caledonia and Vanuatu are almost identical in appearance. I suspect that those from these areas would be at least classified as a subspecies, not a geographical variant.

The Girdled or Belted Fairy Wrasse, C. balteatus (Figure 13 above), is known only from the Marshall Islands and is distinct by having an orange-yellow square on its side.

Conde's Fairy Wrasse, C. condei, (Figures 14 & 15 below) was originally described from Papua, New Guinea and is one of the newer aquarium imports from Vanuatu. Males from Vanuatu have an outstanding black dorsal fin with a yellow band on its upper side, but those from Papua, New Guinea have an additional red band on the basal side of their fin and specimens from the latter have never entered the aquarium trade as far as I know.

Figures 14 & 15. Two photos of a male Cirrhilabrus condei (same specimen), 7cm from Vanuatu. Its body and tail turn bright pink while performing the spawning display.

Figure 16. Cirrhilabrus pylei, male, 10cm from Vanuatu.
Figure 17. Cirrhilabrus pylei, male, 9cm from Cebu.
Figure 18. Cirrhilabrus pylei, male, 9cm from Sulawesi.

The Pyle's Fairy Wrasse, C. pylei (Figures 16, 17 & 18 above), is also one of the newcomers from the western Pacific, mainly from Sulawesi (Indonesia) and Vanuatu. A few specimens from Cebu will be shipped but only rarely. This species has three distinct color morphs: males from Vanuatu have a broad red zone on their dorsal fin, those from Cebu have a conspicuous black spot and a black band on their fins, and those from Sulawesi lack both of these. It is my belief that these are purely geographical variants.

Another new and quite striking species from Vanuatu (Figure 19) should be added here, for it already has been found in the aquarium trade, and also because I love it so much. It was once regarded as a variant of C. bathyphilus (Deep-sea Fairy Wrasse), which was described in 2002. It differs in coloration, however, by having a red hood and a yellow body. I suspected that it could be an entirely new species so I sent four specimens to the genus' expert, Dr. John E. Randall of Oahu, for his examination some time ago, but he determined that it was not a new species. At his suggestion I am currently co-authoring a scientific paper with a friend in Australia on these fish with two distinct color morphs, with the intent to re-describe this species. The "true" C. bathyphilus is restricted to the northern Great Barrier Reef around Holmes Reef and Chesterfield Bank, near New Caledonia.

Figure 19. One of the "subspecies" of C. bathyphilus (male, 7cm) from Vanuatu. It is called the Hooded Fairy Wrasse by collectors in Vanuatu.

Recent shipments from Cebu (the Philippines) have included many unusual specimens, one of which is the deep water species C. roseafascia, the Rose-band or Redstripe Fairy Wrasse (Figure 20). It was described from New Caledonia and only the single, juvenile specimen has been known since its discovery. At the end of the 1990s a diver in Palau photographed a young male that was reported as the first record of C. lanceolatus from Palau. Later, an ichthyologist photographed and collected several specimens by deep diving (over 100 meters deep) in Fiji and Samoa, and only recently have divers from Japan photographed some specimens in Cebu. Cirrhilabrus roseafascia is closely allied with and very similar to C. lanceolatus, which is endemic only to southern Japan. The species reaches over 20 cm in length and is presently the largest member in the genus. I obtained several specimens, all collected in Cebu, and some of them are still very gracefully swimming in my tanks.

An apparently new species from Cebu, popularly called the Pin-tail Fairy Wrasse, C. species (Figure 21), is rarely sold at retailers and commands a high price due to its rarity and its deep water habitat. It was first collected for scientific examination at Iriomote Island in the Ryukyu Islands, and several additional specimens were collected in Taiwan in May 2005. Currently, some specimens are collected in Cebu for the aquarium trade, but this is not done on a regular basis. This as yet unnamed species can be differentiated by having two pinkish stripes on its side, a long tail and a yellowish area on its head and the center of its body. Many native divers have photographed them in the Izu Islands and in southern Japan, but only at great depths.

Figure 20. A Cirrhilabrus roseafascia, male, 15cm, from Cebu. It often is misidentified as C. lanceolatus, but has a blackish blue spot on the posterior part of each pelvic fin's base.

Figure 21. An unnamed Cirrhilabrus species, commonly called the Pin-tail Fairy Wrasse. This is a male, 7cm in length, from Cebu. It likely will be assigned a species name soon.

Several species are yet to be named, and one of them is shown here (C. species, Figure 22). It closely resembles the Red-fin fairy wrasse, C. rubripinnis (Figure 23), but has a broader red area at its dorsal fin's posterior base. Its dorsal fin is deeper red and its anal fin is a deep purplish red, while C. rubripinnis' dorsal and anal fins are equally red. This apparently new species comes from the shallow waters of southwestern Sulawesi and should be named soon.

Figure 22. A Cirrhilabrus species, an unnamed specimen from southern Sulawesi, Indonesia (male, some 7cm). Figure 23. A Cirrhilabrus rubripinnis, male, 7cm, from the Philippines.


Several "probably unnamed species" are now being studied and are soon to be described by various authors in 2006-2007. Fairy wrasses have recently become very popular and have attracted both seasoned and new aquarists alike with their amazing hues and beautiful coloration. Fairy wrasses' easiness to keep and their ability to thrive in both fish-only community tanks and reef tanks make them wonderful aquarium habitants. Additionally, their unexpected and remarkable color changes will astonish any aquarist, and this behavior can be enjoyed even in captivity with careful observation. My ultimate goal and dream is to one day gather all the species and all their stages in one huge tank.

All photos copyrighted and taken by Hiroyuki Tankaka, MD.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.


Kuiter, R.H. 2002. Fairy & Rainbow Wrasses and their Relatives. TMC Publishing. Chorelywood. 208pp.

Additional Reading:

Schultz, H. 2003. The Fairy Wrasses: Cirrhilabrus spp. Reefkeeping Online Magazine. 1(12).

Reefkeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC-Copyright © 2008

Fairy Wrasses: Newcomers to the Hobby by Hiroyuki Tanaka, MD - Reefkeeping.com