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/A Diversity of Aquatic Life

Put A Tiger In Your Tank, The Lyretail Grouper, Variola louti

By Bob Fenner

 In the Red Sea

     With the opening up of marine collection in the Red Sea, many organisms have become available which before cost an arm, leg and a nose. It was just a few years back that a purple tang (Zebrasoma xanthurus), golden butterfly (Chaetodon semilarvatus), asfur and blue moon angelfishes (Arusetta asfur, Pomacanthus maculosus) et al. would set you back a few hundred dollars a piece.

Such is no longer the case; why, at the last InterZoo trade show in Germany (1996), I saw yellow tangs from Hawaii being sold for about the same as purples hailing from the Red Sea.

This continued growth in developing collecting stations and adequate transport (roads, airfields) is a real boon for aquarists. Depending on who you side with technically, the Red Sea near-shore fishes are something between 17 and 32 percent endemic (found only there). What's more, many are very hardy and absolutely beautiful.

Many fishes with wider ranges, that "typically" have poor records of survival in captivity (e.g. the regal angel, Pygoplites diacanthus, Naso lituratus, the Naso, Lipstick Tang or Orangespine Unicornfish is) do remarkably better coming from the Red Sea.

Such is the case with this articles feature species, the lyretail grouper, Variola louti ("vare-ee-oh-lah lout-eye"). This beauty does range over the western Indo-Pacific, all the way to the Indian Ocean; but the best specimens, color, hardy and number-wise are to be had from the Red Sea.

Classification: Taxonomy, Relation With Other Groups

There are several (from the Middle English meaning "many") groups of fishes called "basses"; here we are talking about the real thing, the family Serranidae. Some salient characteristics of true basses: Opercle (gill cover) with three spines; one main spine with a lesser spine above and below. Real basses have lateral lines that are complete and continuous. Their pelvic fins bear one stout spine and five soft rays. Three anal fin spines. Seven branchiostegal rays (the cartilaginous gill supports). Usually 24 or 25 vertebrae.

There are three to fifteen subfamilies of serranids recognized depending on whose taxonomic scheme you're into, @ 64 genera, and 449 species. Some notable members? True basses and groupers, hamlets, fancy basses, Coneys, Tukas, Marine "Bettas", Soapfishes. Most are marine (a few freshwater); worldwide tropical to temperate seas, shallows to more than a thousand feet.

Science recognizes two species in the genus Variola:

Variola albomarginata Baissac 1953, the White-Edged Lyretail Grouper. Indo-Pacific, out to Samoa, but not including the Red Sea. To two feet in length. A beauty that is only occasionally imported to the west. A six inch individual at a Los Angeles wholesaler pictured.

Variola louti (Forsskal 1775), the Skunk or Yellow-Edged Lyretail Grouper. Indo-Pacific to the Pitcairn Islands, and including the Red Sea. To thirty inches in length. Pictured are a four inch juvenile,  one and two foot individuals in the Red Sea.

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Some groupers grow to over 3 meters and 400 kilograms. Many Tukas, subfamily Anthiinae, are only a few inches and ounces. Our Variola Lyretail Grouper gets to thirty inches and eight kilos in the wild.


I have never seen a "bunk" specimen of this species offered for sale; all have been excellent. For basses the lyretail is outgoing, quickly adapting to new surroundings and spending a good part of the time out from cover.

Juvenile coloration is especially variable; at four to six inches have a broad black horizontal mid-body band, red to yellowish above, whitish underneath. Mid-size fish are so purple it almost hurts your eyes, with bright blue spots overall. As they age/grow adults become more salmon to light with enlarged, lighter blue spotting.

Be aware that the more common Miniata Grouper or Hind, Cephalopholis miniata is sometimes offered as the Lyretail. This is a gorgeous, desirable species in it's own right; and similarly colored/marked. The two can be easily told apart by the shape of the tail fin. The lyre's is strongly lunate, that of the Miniata is square to slightly rounded.

Cephalopholis miniata (Forsskal 1775), the Miniata Grouper, Coral Hind. Indo-Pacific: Red Sea to the Line Islands. To eighteen inches in length. Undoubtedly the most prized, frequently used member of the genus for aquariums. A beauty that is intelligent, and capable of gulping up small fishes and motile invertebrates. The first in Australia, the other one in the Red Sea.

Every individual Variola I've seen in the trade has been between four and eight inches. The smaller, the better in terms of settling in. These fish and all other basses should be moved as few times as possible; adaptability reduces with growing size and captive moves.

Environmental: Conditions


Lyretails spend most of their time looking in and amongst breaks in their reef. Provide yours with plenty of caves and other dark spots for cover.


As far as captive marines go most basses are very tolerant of minimally "poor water quality". Any stable tropical temperature will do. A note here regarding specific gravity and much of the livestock coming to us from the Red Sea, and to a lesser extent the Indian Ocean. Many aquarists maintain their systems at an artificially low specific gravity (1.018-1.023); to increase carrying capacity, lower parasite loads, save on salt mix... Fishes by and large do fine with lower spg from the Red Sea; though the normal density of water is higher (there is some 1,600, not a typo, inches of evaporation in the upper gulf annually). For invertebrates from the area a higher, constant spg of 1.025-1.027 is appreciated. You will be rewarded with much more colorful, vigorous and long-lived aquatic charges as a consequence.


Must be adequate and rigorous to handle large tanks and occasional large wastes.

Behavior: Territoriality

These fishes are best kept one to a tank; unless the system is very large (hundreds of gallons), and well-appointed with rock and coral.


This bass will probably settle in as the de facto alpha animal, though you will have to watch closely to appreciate its position. Charging and wide-mouthing would be challengers generally passes without serious incident.

Predator/Prey Relations

Though most basses as species and individuals are not overtly "mean", they are predaceous carnivores that will swallow any tankmate smaller than their capacious jaws.

Feeding/Foods/Nutrition: Types, Frequency, Amount, Wastes

Like other larger basses/groupers, the lyretail soon learns to recognize intended food items and your association with them. They will accept live freshwater organisms as well as formulated, preserved-frozen foods.

Unless you want to have your bass outgrow and pollute its system in short order, feed sparingly and infrequently, two or three times a week, unless it is a smallish specimen (only a few inches in length) and/or you keep your system on the warm side.

Disease: Infectious, Parasitic, Nutritional, Genetic, Social

Unlike some its smaller brethren, Lyretails are relatively disease resistant and hardy.


What more could you ask for in a fish-only centerpiece addition to your system? The Lyretail Grouper is one of the most attractive fishes coming from a sea of over-abundant color.

We can all look forward to more and less-expensive quality livestock from the Red Sea as a consequence of improved international relations in the area, and the forethought and entrepreneurial spirit of new collectors there.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Special thanks to Scott Michael for pointing out errors in my original draft, and suggesting useful corrections.

Campbell, Douglas G. 1979. Marines: their care and keeping, Groupers and their allies. Parts 1-3. 9-11/79 FAMA.

Fenner, Robert. 1996. The Lyretail Grouper, Variola louti. SeaScope v.13, Summer 1996.

Goldstein, Robert. 1992. Spectacular serranids, the colorful and fascinating groupers. AFM 11/92

Hunziker, Ray. 1988. Orange lightning- experiences with Cephalopholis miniatus. TFH 3/88.

Michael, Scott W. Fishes for the marine aquarium; basses and grammas- you can't go wrong with these. AFM 8/95.

Nelson, Joseph S. Fishes of the World. Wiley. 3rd Ed. 1994.

Thresher, R.E. 1984. Reproduction in reef fishes; part 2, seabasses (Serranidae: Serraninae) TFH 11/84.


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