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Related FAQs: Wrasses, Wrasses 2 Wrasse Identification, Wrasse ID 2, Wrasse Behavior, Wrasse Selection, Wrasse Compatibility, Wrasse Systems, Wrasse Feeding, Wrasse Disease, Wrasse Disease 2, Wrasses & Crypt, Wrasse Reproduction

Wrasse Regional Accounts: Cook Islands, Wrasses Found in Indonesia Part One, Two, Three,               

Wrasse Articles/FAQs on: Anampses, Hogfishes/Bodianus, Maori Wrasses/Cheilinus & OxycheilinusChoerodon/Tuskfishes, Harlequin Tuskfish/Choerodon fasciatus, Fairy/Velvet Wrasses/Cirrhilabrus, Coris & Coris gaimard, Bird Wrasses/Gomphosus, Halichoeres, Cleaner Wrasses/Labroides, Tubelip Wrasses/Labropsis, Lachnolaimus, Leopard Wrasses/Macropharyngodon, Oxycheilinus, Pencil Wrasses/Pseudojuloides, RazorfishesDragon Wrasse, Paracheilinus, Pseudocheilinus, Stethojulis, Thalassoma,

The Best Livestock for A Marine Aquarium

The Few Wrasses for Small Aquarium Use



by Bob Fenner


 Amongst fish families the Wrasses, Family Labridae has the diversity and breadth of sizes and suitability to meet most any and all types of marine systems. From the public-aquarium-only gargantuan Maori Wrasse called the Napoleon, Cheilinus undulatus at nearly two metres in length to diminutive Lined, Fairy and Flasher Wrasses for our Reef Systems. Currently the Labrids possess some seventy genera and five hundred twenty one species; most of which are appropriate only for large rough and tumble Fish Only (FO) or Fish Only With Live Rock (FOWLR) systems. Even some of the small species, like the Flashers (Paracheilinus) and Velvet or Fairy Wrasses (genus Cirrhilabrus) need psychological room to move about, and interact with conspecifics to be happy, healthy, and colorful. These fishes, inclusive of the borderline super-genus Halichoeres members need more than the forty gallon limit arbitrarily set here as “small” systems.

However, there are a few smaller Labrid species that do rate highly for small reef aquarium usage, and this is their tale.

Genus Pseudocheilinus, Some of the Lined Wrasses:

Of the more commonly available Wrasse species that stay small, the Pseudocheilinus appear to have much going for them. But though they're good-looking, intelligent fishes, they can be too aggressive to other fish tankmates, and if ever there were poster children/fishes for shyness, these Labrids would be top contenders. Often quite common in their natural ranges, with the possible exception of P. ocellatus, divers miss seeing them about as much as anxious reef aquarists who have placed them in their systems. Despite their tendency to be little terrors and propensity for hiding these fishes can make engaging, albeit fleeting additions to many types of marine systems. 

            All told there are seven scientifically described species of Pseudocheilinus (Randall 1999, and Fishbase.org). Of these, two might work for small systems but they’re rare as hen's teeth in the trade, hailing from restricted ranges. In fact I have yet to come upon P. citrinus (from the Pitcairn Islands to Rarotonga), or P. dispilus (from the Mascarene Islands) in the trade in the U.S. The three species, listed below however, are often available. Their collective distribution covers the Mid-Pacific (Hawaii and the Polynesia, the west Pacific to East Africa's coast and the Red Sea). These are shallow water reef fishes. They are all found in and amongst rocky rubble and its associated attached life.

            Three commercially available Pseudocheilinus are small enough for our use/stocking here; the others being too large, requiring more space for roaming.

Pseudocheilinus evanidus Jordan & Evermann 1903, the Pin-Striped or Striated Wrasse. I like this fish's other common names, the Disappearing or Vanishing Wrasse for its bashfulness. To a grand size of three inches. Indo-Pacific, including Red Sea and Hawai'i. This one slipping away in Fiji.

Pseudocheilinus hexataenia (Bleeker 1857), the Sixline (sometimes labeled as Twelve-line) Wrasse. A fish that can be very mean, though small (to 4 inches). Indo-Pacific, including the Red Sea in its distribution. Another Fijian specimen.

Pseudocheilinus tetrataenia Schultz 1960, take a guess, yes; the Fourline Wrasse. Like all members of the genus is best kept one to a tank. Western central Pacific. To three inches total length. Aquarium photo.


Genus Wetmorella; the Possum Wrasses:

            The smallest species of Labrids that are regularly caught, sold in the trade are of this genus. They can do well in systems of as little as ten gallons. There are three species of Wetmorella; all come in from time to time; and are similarly useful. If you’re interested in acquiring them, you should ask your dealer to in turn query their suppliers.

Wetmorella nigropinnata (Seale 1901), Sharpnose or Possum Wrasse. Indo-Pacific; Red Sea to the Marquesas, Southern Japan, Micronesia. To a maximum of  three inches in length. Lives in caves and crannies; secretive species. Like all members of the genus feeds on small benthic invertebrates. Aquarium photo. 

Aren’t There Other Small Wrasses?

            Yes; there are other species of Labrids that would fit in small systems; but these rarely-to-never make their way into the trade. And yes; you could squeeze small individuals of wrasse species that get big into nano systems while they’re tiny to small… This is a poor idea; as folks almost never “upgrade” their system, move the fish to bigger settings, and the animals suffer for the lack of psychological space.


    These small wrasses will get along with most anything that will get along with them... They may well pick at small molluscs and crustaceans, as well as worms... small enough to fit in their little mouths. But fishes and larger sessile and motile invertebrates are not of interest to their palate.

    Due to resource partitioning and overt territoriality, it's generally recommended to NOT keep more than one specimen of any given species together; they WILL fight.


    Picking out good specimens of these Wrasses is easier than with most reef fishes. For small fishes they ship pretty well, and due to their inherent behavior, few are damaged in the process of capture (they're captured with low-lying fence/barrier nets; “goosed” out of hiding with a “chaser pole”), holding, and shipping (they readily calm down in the dark, and hence don't suffer as much as other groups of marines in-transit from the wild to your dealer.

1) Time on hand. I do encourage you to avoid "just-arrived" specimens... I know the "midnight madness", "buy them before we let them go" sales are hard to pass up, but these and all marines really need time to adjust, rest before being moved further... Most "anomalous" losses occur within a day or two of being shipped... Wait a few to several days for newcomers to recover from the rigors of capture/handling.

2) Obvious damage: These small prognathous ("jaws forward") fishes do tend to run into the sides of tanks at first, and get hung at times in fence nets... So do pay close attention to signs of physical trauma about their heads, mouths, eyes and fin origins. A few torn fin membranes are not a problem, and these will knit in short time given good care, but problems with mouths, eyes... are to be avoided. Of a certainty, the "acid-test" of feeding may show that there is something amiss in these regards.

3) Behavioral clues: These species vacillate from periods of continuous brisk activity to setting on the bottom, at times, apparently "out of breath"... and of course, often sleeping in the sand bed. What you want to look for in a prospective buy is the quality of "brightness"; that the animal is aware of your presence, not always lying about, but interacting with tankmates, what is going on about it.

4) Size matters. For the usual reasons of poor adaptability, likely damage from shipping, you want to avoid too large and too small specimens. The better sizes to select for are the mean/average of the maximum values given above, with a range of half an inch smaller to an inch larger than this measure of central tendency.  


    Some folks believe the word describing the wrasse family "Labros" from the Greek, meaning "greedy", refers to their gluttonous feeding habits... such easily describes even these small species. They are ready feeders on all small meaty foods or marine-based meaty prepared foods. Just do bear in mind that the particles must be small enough to suit their tiny jaws or capable of being torn into such small sized pieces. 

    These are active foraging fishes by day, and so ideally should be supplied some food to hunt for (that DSB, hang-on or tied-in refugium) like copious quantities of live rock... and sand... to provide small crustaceans, worms and molluscs "on the hoof". 


     All wrasses are susceptible to the common protozoan parasites of marines (Cryptocaryon and Amyloodinium) and have a bit less tolerance for the common toxic remedies used to treat them. Quinine compounds are suggested for Velvet and the assiduous use of chelated copper for most other single-celled parasites... along with requisite daily measure and careful topping off to physiological dosage on the low end (0.15 to 0.20 ppm of free cupric ion equivalent).


    The diminutive wrasses of the genera Pseudocheilinus and Wetmorella have much to recommend them other than staying small. They are unique, interesting characters that if you can train them to stay out a bit, make for endless fun and discussion points. Just do be sure of the likely compatibility issues, limitations you'll have with your given mix of livestock species in their system.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Michael, Scott W. 1997. Beautiful wrasses. The unique species of the genus Halichoeres. AFM 3/97.

Michael, Scott W. 2006. Halichoeres wrasses. They can be beautiful, but some are predatory feeders with hearty appetites. AFM 8/06.

Randall, John E. 1999. Revision of the Indo-Pacific Labrid Fishes of the Genus Pseudocheilinus, With Descriptions of Three New Species. Indo-Pacific Fishes. Bernice P. Bishop, Hawai'i.

Scheimer, Gregory. 1997. Wrasses for the reef aquarium, pt.s 1, 2. FAMA 11, 12/97.

Schultz, Henry C. Four, Six, Eight; Genus Pseudocheilinus. Marine World Magazine (UK) 6,7/08


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