Ask the WWM Crew
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Everyone one has a favored organism within a group, and of the family of wrasses, Labridae, mine is the prized member of the genus Coris, the gaimard. This fish has it all. Hardiness where caught and handled carefully, beauty in color and motion, and tremendous intelligence. Of course, this coris (sorry) readily adapts to captive conditions and accepts a wide variety of foods.
Herein are my elaborations on the above merits, how to select for good specimens, and provide adequate conditions and care.
Classification: Taxonomy, Relation With Other Groups
I like the German name, lippfische for the labrids (note the root labr- for lip), for two reasons. In reference to their prodigious oral skirts, and secondly their no-nonsense tolerance of tankmates misbehavior.
Though the wrasses exhibit amongst the most wide divergence in body shape, size, and color collectively and varying within some species (drastically) between sexes and development, they share a general physical "plan":
Their mouths are protractile (handy for manipulating the environment, which they love to do, without opposable thumbs), with jaw teeth that are typically separate and jutting outward. They sport continuous hard and soft spined/rayed dorsal and anal fins, and have bodies that are broadly fusiform (torpedo-like) in profile.
Of the sixty genera and more than six hundred species of the wrasse family, only a few are available to the hobby. Some others grow too large and aggressive, others are overly shy, a few shy on the drab side, but most are susceptible to the select force of "demand and therefore supply".
Such is the case with the genus Coris ("Kore-is"), an actively burrowing assemblage that hosts a handful of aquarium species. The rainbow, yellow tail or gaimard species, C. gaimard, was named for a surgeon aboard the French ship, Uranie, that pulled station in Hawaii in 1819. M. Joseph Paul Gaimard was a collector of some renown, responsible for the study and descriptions of several other Indo-Pacific and Hawaiian fishes.
The genus Coris itself was erected by Lacepede in 1801; there are currently about two dozen valid species and more than that in junior synonyms; i.e. duplicate invalids misapplied to differing life stages and already labeled species.
Range & Size
The family Labridae are entirely marine, found in shallow to mid depths (200 meters) in the tropical to temperate seas of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. The genus Coris are distributed widely in Oceania and the Indo-Pacific; ranging to Hawaii in the east to Africa and the Red Sea.
A few wrasses are massive; the Napoleon (Cheilinus undulatus) attains at least 2.3 meters in length; a large Coris is a foot long. Just for the record, Minilabrus striatus of the Red Sea, at 4.5 cm is the shortest labrid constituent.
Selection: General to Specific
The number one cause of early and late demise of members of this genus is poor netting, housing and shipping practice. As a consumer the best you can do to offset potential loss is to wait on new arrivals to assure that they acclimate to captivity. A sizable deposit should reserve a new specimen that can be picked up in a week or two.
Signs of over, or mis-handling can be difficult to assess. Raw areas, tears in the mouth, broken fin membranes may be obvious, but internal damage to this soft-bodied species is hard to gauge. Individuals caught in "wrasse nets", short barrier nets of smaller diameter netting, and quickly hand netted to holding/decompression buckets prove very hardy. "Beat" specimens expire within a week at most.
Can be very important, in particular if you're in the fish business and regularly purchasing these animals. The ones from the Philippines and Indonesia are decidedly inferior, probably due to rougher handling and longer transit time. Those from Hawaii and the Red Sea are premium. Someday specimens will be shipped from Polynesia's Tuamotus and Marquesas; they are also excellent.
How is the fish acting? During the day, coris wrasses are invariably active, up and about checking out their environment, or resting between bouts of the same. Prospective buys should not simply be cowering in the corners.
The better sizes are the smaller, for cost, handling damage, and adaptability. Two to five inchers are ideal.
Rarely the look-alike Queen Coris, C. formosa (more recently as C. frerei) will be offered as C. gaimard. The former's range is restricted to the Indian Ocean, and does overlap with the gaimard, but they're not the same quality fish for aquarium use, and worth telling apart. As a juvenile C. formosa bears much more dark-emarginated saddles compared to the gaimard wrasse, and as an adult is even more different, with a prominent white saddle slicing at an angle across the head all the way to its ventral surface.
Another more expensive, but just as hardy contender is the recognized subspecies of Indian Ocean "African" gaimard, C. gaimard africana. The "standard" species of gaimard wrasse we are highlighting here is labeled C. gaimard gaimard; it has better color and a much more yellow tail than the African subspecies.
Even if you're starting with a small specimen, it will get big, fast. And for a type of fish that spends a lot of time laying about, Coris wrasses require lots of space... for breathing, making messes, and swimming about. A forty gallon allotment for one yellow-tail is about right, more is definitely better.
Being burrowing species, Coris wrasses require a gravel bed of sufficient depth (a few inches depending on fish size) and non-scratching angularity. Roundish coral sand on the bottom, or proffered in a suitable tray is relished. Beware of silicas and hard dolomitious materials.
Water quality considerations are minimal. Coris wrasses are tolerant of "normal" fish-only parameters; little to no ammonia, nitrite, ten or less of nitrate, a pH in the upper 7's, low 8's...
Should be oversized. Not only are these wrasses big eaters and defecators, they're prodigious diggers, daily rooting up gravel and small rocks emulating food searching in the wild. An outside power filter of high circulation is a necessity.
Two further items need to be mentioned concerning housing and showing these fish, particulars of decor and the fact that they're serious jumpers. Coris wrasses need the aforementioned sandy digging area, sufficient open swimming space and rock cover. Take a look at the accompanying reef images showing gaimard's in their natural environs; this is what they need. Be careful not to stack the heavy items such that they may be easily toppled by a digging fish, they will be.
The top needs to be well covered. Especially on initial introduction to a system, Coris wrasses eject themselves onto the floor. If need be tape over sufficiently large areas to allow egress.
Coris wrasses for the most part should be kept one to a system. There will often be trouble if "the one" cannot be "number one" in the way of feeding, swimming space and overall behavioral dominance. To restate, unless you have a huge tank (thousands of gallons) keep them singly, and take pains to have otherwise subdominant tank-mates.
Placing such a fish is just standard-operating-procedure; what is important is when it is done relative to the age of the aquarium and it's other inhabitants. Due to their penchant for aggressiveness your gaimard's wrasse should be put in last or near to it.
"See the beautiful wrasse; see it's big teeth; see the beautiful big toothed wrasse eat your fish collection". Well, not exactly, but these fish are piscivorous and a several inch specimen will definitely consume small (1-2") tank-mates, and most any consumable invertebrate.
Conversely, although as young Coris gaimard functions as a part time cleaner, removing parasites and necrotic tissue from would-be hosts, it can and is consumed by such in the wild and captivity. Mix with larger basses, puffers, morays, et al. at your own risk.
Reproduction, Sexual Differentiation:
Like many wrasses, the gaimard goes through some remarkable structural and color/markings changes with age and development. As a juvenile it sports an overall orangish red background color with generally two head and three black ringed body saddles. These young, if they persist, change into initial phase females with bluish green bodies, yellow tails and the many brilliant blue spots posteriorly. Given age, growth and absence of enough males, some of these female individuals become terminal phase males. They are typically darker with a faint greenish vertical bar on their flank.
Cued by moon/tides and water temperature, this species spawns in loose "pair" arrangement in short bursts a few to several feet from the reef bottom. Gametes and young are planktonic. Not reproduced in captivity.
Feeding/Foods/Nutrition: Types, Frequency, Amount, Wastes
Coris wrasses are not finicky eaters, quite the contrary, they eat everything, inclusive of your fingers if you're not careful. Take care to watch as you feed and ensure that all other tankmates are receiving some food. It may be well to feed simultaneously at both ends of the tank.
If your gaimard is "off-feed" something is amiss. They are greedy feeders on all types of foodstuffs, dried, flake, and especially meaty. On the last point I want to discourage the use of so-called feeder fish (e.g. goldfish, guppies) on several counts; cost, inconvenience and particularly behavioral anomaly (it does make them mean).
Some fresh or frozen/defrosted food should be offered daily. In the wild adults feed mainly on mollusks, sea urchins and crustaceans; in captivity all meaty items can be trained to be taken.
Coris wrasses are subject to the usual protozoal scourges of tropical marine fishes, Cryptocaryoniasis and Oodiniumiasis, and have no great liking for typical store bought nostrums. Therefore be resolved to utilize preventative measures like quarantine and optimized water quality to keep problems from starting.
On the note of their most likely source of injury, mishandling, do use only soft-netting nets, cradled carefully with your hand, and use them sparingly. That is, don't net yours unless absolutely necessary.
Campbell, Douglas. 1980. Marines: their care and keeping; wrasses: part one. FAMA 12/80.
Debelius, Helmut & Hans A. Baensch. Marine Atlas. MERGUS, Germany. 1215pp.
Hoover, John P. 1995. Hawaii's wrasses, part II. FAMA 6/95.
Nelson, Joseph S. 1996. Fishes of the World. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. NY. 600pp.
Randall, John E. 1996. Shore Fishes of Hawai'i. Natural World Press, OR. 216pp.
Stratton, Richard F. 1989. The red wrasse: Coris gaimard. TFH 11/89.
Tinker, Spencer W. 1978. Fishes of Hawaii; A Handbook of the Marine Fishes of Hawaii and the Central Pacific Ocean. Hawaiian Service, Inc. Honolulu, HI. 532pp.