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Related FAQs: Bird Wrasses, Wrasses 1, Wrasse Selection, Wrasse Behavior, Wrasse Compatibility, Wrasse Feeding, Wrasse Diseases,

Related Articles: The Bird Wrasses, genus Gomphosus by Bob Fenner, The Diversity of Wrasses, Family Labridae, Cook

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The Bird Wrasses, Genus Gomphosus


Bob Fenner


 The Other Bird Wrasse Species, Gomphosus caeruleus

 Unknown to most all western aquarists, even very advanced folks in the trade, there is another member of the bird wrasse genus; just as beautiful and hardy as the familiar Indo-Pacific G. varius. This sibling species is found further west in the Indian Ocean, occurring along east Africa from South Africa up and into the Red Sea and east to the Andaman Sea.

            The Indian Ocean or Green Birdmouth Wrasse compares size-wise with the Indo-Pacific congener, with males growing to a foot maximum length in the wild. Both species are reef associated, being found in shallows to depths of about a hundred feet.

            Aquarium care for the IO Bird Wrasse is identical as well. A spacious setting of a hundred gallons or more, a good deal of fine sand to dive into, meaty foods on a daily basis, and a dearth/lack of small mollusks and crustaceans, brittle stars and mouth-sized fishes that might well become fodder.

            Though expensive like all Red Sea imports, this species is excellent for fish only to specialized fish and invertebrate, even full blown reef systems with a select choice of tankmates. They can be special ordered through dealers in the west, and are great choices for folks wishing to present reef slope biotopes of the area.  

Gomphosus caeruleus Lacepede 1801, the Blue, or Red Sea Bird Wrasse is found in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Males are dark azure blue, and females white to yellow below and dark greenish blue above. To one foot in length. At right a half inch juvenile. Below: two inch juvenile, four inch female, seven inch male. Images made diving in the Red Sea.

Keeping the Bird Wrasse: A Checklist

 1)      Select only clean, active individuals for stocking. Place female/s first, a single male per system, last.

2)      Get your specimen/s home, acclimated and placed ASAPractical.

3)      Needs large, open quarters. A minimum five foot length, uncrowded system.

4)      Keep a lid on it! These fishes are superb jumpers!

5)      Select a suitably mid-sized individual, 4-5 inches maximum If female/s is to be kept with a male, place them first.

6)      Feed frequent, small meaty foods.

7)      Observe your specimen/s carefully for potential bullying of other livestock! 

Amongst the most graceful of fishes to observe in their range, Bird or Birdnose Wrasses are one of the most aptly named fishes. Flying along while beating their pectoral fin wings, using their elongated snouts ala parrots, gaudy coloration and hook-bill like curiosity underwater, these are amongst my favorite fishes to photograph as well as suggest for rough and tumble fish only to specialized reef settings. As is to be expected with any choice in livestock, there are some caveats when stocking these species. They can/will consume the same sorts of life that they do in the wild. Hence many small motile invertebrates need to be excluded, as do very small fishes that might be inhaled. Other than these omissions, keeping Birds is a breeze, and very rewarding. With their grace, speed and showiness, these fishes are great centerpieces.

Amongst the hundreds of Wrasse/Labrid species, even the fishes en toto, the Birds are unmistakably shaped, with their protruding snouts. The two species males and females are strikingly different colour-wise, but can always be discerned through knowing their collection origin.


THE Bird Wrasse (Green for males, Black or Brown for females) to folks in the west is Gomphosus varius to science (show images of juvenile, initial, terminal phase individuals, provided). Most specimens are collected for the trade from the U.S. fiftieth State of Hawaii. Not only is this a bonus location for good reasons including nearness and therefore shortness of air-transport, but the trade or ornamental marines in the Aloha State is closely regulated, with all species, specimens collected counted and all collectors licensed. The species is available off and on all year long, but you may be best off special-ordering this fish through your dealer.

Gomphosus varius is found more widely in the Indo-Pacific, occurring southward in parts of Polynesia, over to northern Australia out to Rowley Shoals in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean and up to S. Japan. Nowhere is it super-abundant, but depending on the season, more young may be observed, at times congregating socially, in lagoons and seaward reefs, from shallow water to about a hundred foot depths.

Bird Wrasses are fence-netted using near-transparent poly-netting that is cut into rectangular pieces with a float line at top and weighted lead line at the bottom. These nets, of a few tens of feet in length, a few to a handful of feet in height, are arrayed on the bottom in a U or W shape with resident fishes (not including Birds) pushed off their patch of the reef, the net set, and then driven back into the net, where they are hand-netted. Bird Wrasses are really more of an accidental or by-catch generally, swimming into the net while swimming in the general vicinity. Males lek territories can be more than several hundred square feet, and so setting nets for them specifically is generally impractical.

Gomphosus varius Lacepede 1801, is the much more common Bird Wrasse in the west. Its males are lighter green over-all, and females transversely white to black front to back, with an orangish upper "beak". The common Bird Wrasse is found in Hawaii to the tropical western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean. At right, a juvenile in Hawaii. Below: Female in Hawai'i, an intermediate individual (changing from female to male), a male there and one in captivity.


Selection and stocking of Bird Wrasses is typically easy to do. This are fishes that ship well, and are either good to go, or flat-out terrible to obviously dying. The key aspect to look for in choosing specimens is apparent traumatic damage. These fishes really are very active, powerful swimmers, and can at times excessively damage themselves by excessive jumping in transport, or by bashing into aquarium tops trying to jump out.

Look for a specimen (one male to a tank please, possibly with one or more haremic females) that is out and about, not hiding in the corners having private parties, that is bright i.e., aware of your presence, giving you the eye as it swims by. Healthy individuals are almost continuously active, searching for food, and very cognizant of what is going on inside and outside their immediate world. A further note re stocking more than one: If you intend to keep a single or multiple females, do introduce these first, ahead of placing a male.

Size or more importantly, maturity does matter when picking out specimens here. Though most wont grow to maximum adult size in the wild (a foot for males, eight inches or so for females), even half sized individuals need plenty of room and like all reef fishes, adapt better when caught, bought and raised when smaller. Avoid large males those with prominent bumps on their beaks, and consider the virtues of starting with a female of four-five inches overall length and growing it up to your systems limitations.

Bird Wrasses, due to their continuous, frantic swimming behavior need to be bagged in a doubled (to prevent failure, puncture with fin spines) polyethylene shipping bags and supplied with pure oxygen if possible, kept out of bright light (ideally in the dark; maybe a thermally insulated cooler) and moved expediently home, acclimated and placed w/o delay. These species often have the most trouble due to self-inflicted damage in transit.

Gomphosus species are amongst fishes that I suggest not isolating or quarantining. Theyre just too prone to damaging themselves if kept in small quarters, and far more likely to perish there than be carriers of parasitic or too-bad infectious disease. Other than careful acclimation, the most I would subject them to is a pH-adjusted freshwater dip/bath of five minutes or so duration with you present.

Bird Wrasses are bold, boisterous fishes in the wild and captivity. Take care in your stocking plan to place yours as either the last fish if its a male, or near last along with other top-dog species like the larger Angels, Puffers, and Triggers.


Tankmates should be chosen with care. Their mouths may appear, well, actually they are quite small, but, Bird Wrasses are tool users, grabbing and smacking surprisingly large crustaceans, snails and bivalves, worms of all kinds, brittlestars and small, unwary fishes onto rocks breaking them into pieces to eat. I have seen these species kept in reef systems (they are reef livers in the wild), but these systems should be carefully stocked to avoid temptation on the Birds part.

As previously stated, these are reef animals, but ones with a penchant for consuming a good many of the types of animals aquarists keep in their home systems. Though they wont touch Cnidarians (corals, anemones and such) though they do pick in and amongst polyps for other food organisms, but/and most any small motile invertebrate of other phyla is fair game. Hence, most writers eschew suggesting their placement in hobbyist reef systems and stress their better use in FOWLR (fish only with live rock) or hardier, larger fish and invertebrate systems.

As noted above, if stocking a full male, this fish is best placed last; after all other fishes have been introduced, recovered from the vagaries of being imported, moved.


Habitat needs of bird wrasses are easy to appreciate if youve had the opportunity of seeing these fishes in the wild. Very small juveniles (an inch or two in length), stay well-hidden near the bottom day and night, darting in/out and amongst stony corals, avoiding predation. Initial phase (females) intermediates to terminal phase individuals are constantly zooming over coral-rich areas, including sand patches, seeking out small live food organisms. In summation, these fishes need large, open water spaces to be happy. The pivotal question becomes how large is large? At least a five foot long, hundred gallon system with little rock work along the long axis for swimming is required. The bigger the tank is the better.

Substrate choice is important as well, both for feeding behavior (these fishes dont burrow beneath the sand to sleep or avoid predation). Having at least a designated area, if not the whole aquarium bottom, supplied with soft/er (rounded) coral sand provides. A two inch depth is a bare minimum here, with some spots built up to inches more being better if youre shooting for DSB (Deep Sand Bed) benefits. Some rock, live or otherwise should be stacked to provide hiding and sleeping areas.

A reminder regarding this fishs propensity for launching itself out the top of tanks! Do keep your top sufficiently covered to discount jumping.



            Feeding Gomphosus spp. is easy; meaty items mostly and foods composed of algal material of all sorts are accepted with gusto. For the former, frozen/defrosted foods are best, additional to a staple of a good pelleted feed. Good-sized shrimps of all kinds, silversides, and general human-seafoods, as in those offered as sea food chowder makings, are excellent. More frequent, smaller lights-on feedings are preferable, and help to discount much aberrant behavior. Three-four times a day is not too frequent to proffer foods.

            You are advised to keep an especially close-eye on these fishes during feeding, to assure that they are out and about, getting their share. Of causes of loss, avitaminoses (lack of essential nutrient/s) is a primary, with hiding behavior, loss of vision likely being directly related.


            Diseases amongst Bird Wrasses are a rarity; they have robust natures that express themselves in their being about last to contract or succumb to infectious or parasitic diseases. Just the same, I encourage you to avoid treating these fishes if simple environmental manipulation or dips/baths will do. Should you find a resistant Protozoan situation at hand, avoid metals (e.g. Copper) and dyes (e.g. Malachite Green) and opt for the use of Quinine/s. I have found that Chloroquine Phosphate, applied in one dose, usually treats for all such problems.

            One other common complaint with the genus is blindness. The verdict is still out as to how much of this might be environmental, i.e. bright light but the punctuated (weekly lets say) use of food supplements that include HUFAs and Vitamins, along with the use of iodide/iodate, added either to the water or as a food soak, has proven efficacious in preventing, and at times reversing apparent loss of vision.

            We should mention in passing that terminal phase/male Bird Wrasses develop a fatty (adipose) growth on the upper areas of their beaks with growth/age. This is a natural development (Ive seen it many times underwater in the wild), but some folks have become so concerned as to do elective surgery, cutting away this growth. I would not do this, as the accumulated material does not appear to cause troubles for these older fish. If I may speculate, perhaps the bulbous-ness of male snouts serves as a sort of visual aggression diminisher, reducing battles between would-be adult males.


            These fishes are sex-change artists. Like all members of their family, the Labridae, these wrasses are synchronous (vs. simultaneous), protogynic (first female, vs. protandric, like the Clownfishes for instance), hermaphrodites, possessing at developmental stages, functional female, then later, male reproductive tissues. All individuals start out sexually undifferentiated juveniles. If theyre fortunate to not be eaten, these grow into initial phase females and with time, growth, these go through an intermediate stage becoming terminal phase males.

            As far as Im aware, neither species of Bird Wrasse has been reproduced (bred and raised) in captivity, though spawning behavior, males and females dancing with unpaired fins erect, quickly dashing to the surface, perhaps releasing gametes, has been observed. Collection of embryos, removal of mechanical filtration, and provision of adequate foods (likely cultured) could see these species captive-produced.  


            Should you find yourself with a large system that really needs both colour and movement in stocking, do consider the bird wrasses. They have much going for them, being both beautiful and hardy. The only caveats to keep in mind are that they will hunt and consume small fishes and motile invertebrates.


Bibliography/Further Reading:

Baensch, Hans & Helmut Debelius. 1994. Marine Atlas, v.1. MERGUS, Germany. 1215pp.

Debelius, Helmut. 1993. Indian Ocean Tropical Fish Guide. IKAN, Frankfurt. 321pp.

Debelius, Helmut. 1998. Red Sea Reef Guide. IKAN, Frankfurt, Germany. 321pp.

Randall, John E. 1983. Red Sea Reef Fishes. Immel Publishing, London. 192pp.

Randall, J.E., G.R. Allen and R.C. Steene. 1990. Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 507pp.

Randall, John E. 1996 Shore Fishes of Hawaii. Natural World Press, OR. 216pp.

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