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Related FAQs: Cleaner Wrasses, Labroides 2Labroides Identification, Labroides Behavior, Labroides Selection, Labroides Compatibility, Labroides Feeding, Labroides Systems, Labroides Disease, Labroides Reproduction, Wrasses, Wrasse Selection, Wrasse Behavior, Wrasse Compatibility, Wrasse Feeding, Wrasse Diseases,  

Related Articles:  Labroides dimidiatus, the Common Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse
Not Impossible to Keep
 by Bob Fenner, The Diversity of Wrasses, Family Labridae, Cook Islands Wrasses

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Cleaner Wrasses in the Genus Labroides

 Bob Fenner

  Labroides dimidiatus and a Bicolor Parrotfish, Red Sea

For a number of good reasons there are a many varieties f livestock that are unsuitable for captivity. Specialized diets, growing to too large a size, easy susceptibility to disease, poor adjustment to aquarium conditions, being too dangerous, too rare, or performing a needed function in the wild among other traits preclude certain species being attractive to aquarists.

Unfortunately this list includes specimens that are regularly offered to the hobby. Why? The answer not surprisingly is someone will buy them. I would like to believe that mainstream aquarists are an informed, conscientious lot dealing from a position of knowledge with intelligent, honest dealers, wholesalers, transhippers... all the way back to the collectors and breeders. Alas, I must be dreaming. How much do any of us know re what we do? Is it enough to have the means and desire to "buy" what you want?

What I fully suspect is that most folks assume that the livestock available is generally okay for aquarium care. Sure, of course some kinds of wet pets are easier to keep, feed and breed than others; and within a species some individuals are more or less robust than average. But are you willing to purchase livestock that on average only lives a few weeks? How about consideration of the "cost" to the environment of it's collection?

My beef here is the issues of:

1) Offering inappropriate specimens that have little chance of living any quality of life for any quantity of time, &

2) The taking of these more challenging species from the wild,

3) Loss of "beneficial" species from the wild, and

4) The gall, greed and ignorance of mis- and lack of information that produces and perpetuates this activity.

Is this a big deal? I think so. There are too many fishes and invertebrates being lost within a short period of time; too much blame being placed on "cyanide", poor water quality, and other causes, when the plain fact is that much of this life should not have been removed in the first place. The attrition rate of ornamental aquatics hobbyists is atrocious, but can you justify staying in an interest with so much "anomalous" loss? Must we wait till governmental regulation shuts down our diversion on reports of high habitat damage and consequent captive mortality?

I say no. There are many organisms suitable for aquarium use whose taking have negligible deleterious effect on natural environs. For every million cardinal tetras taken for the ornamental trade there are billions that die, dried up in seasonal pools.

In considering this essay I came up with two principal counter-points; there is no clear yes/no answer to what constitutes aquarium-suitable or not, and secondly that without trying "difficult" species the field of aquaristics will not, cannot advance...

To the first of these I agree. There are dangerous species like the blue-ringed octopus and Stonefishes, too large species like the Napoleon wrasse (getting to three meters!), touchy coral-eating butterfly fishes, etc. that historically sustain high mortalities, nearly one hundred percent with a few weeks. Few in the know would argue that ribbon morays, Moorish idols, wild percula clowns, et alia are hardy aquarium fare. Whereas, on the other end of the spectrum there are typical hardy species and many gray area types and sizes. So where do we draw the line? Should all pet fish be tank bred? Maybe limited to those unable to exist as exotics in local waters? That would really limit what's available.

Where would we be without people trying and reproducing successive generations of wild discus (Symphysodon), freshwater angels, even mollies? The original breeding stock of numerous species were problematic when first introduced. Happily there were enterprising folks who persevered through heavy losses in the beginning of their domestication and determined proper living conditions, diet, feeding, disease control and reproductive biology. Perhaps today's tricky species will be tomorrow's achievements; it is certain we will not learn without using and losing specimens.

A weaker argument still could be advanced for utilizing questionable stock; for the benefit of native peoples' collecting efforts. That is, whatever they are capable of providing the trade furthers their income, and may even "flatten" predator/prey relations.

Again, my principal gripe with easily lost, endangered, and dangerous captives is the issue of informed consent. Is the consumer making intelligent decisions in casting their vote with their monetary investment in these species? Much too frequently, no. Often, color, pattern, mesmerizing motion, dearth of selection and fear of lack drive an aquarist to "try" a new specimen on impulse. Are the retailers to blame? Very little in my estimation. The end user, ourselves as the ultimate consumers are all-powerful in providing the cash that drives the market; we decide what is successfully offered.

What do I propose to help remedy these fatalities? In a word EDUCATION. When we as the controllers of the market make better choices due to enhanced awareness, there is a shift in market pressures. Allow me this anecdote to illustrate: As a boy I spent time in the Philippines diving and collecting ornamental tropicals. It's amazing to me how many types of livestock we would pass over that seemed plentiful, easy to catch, pretty, hardy, and interested in eating even the fecal material of other fishes... As a novice pet-fisherman I would gather some of these and bring them on-board. My companions would laugh and either eat or pour these unwanted specimens over the side. When I protested saying these would make excellent choices for aquaria they would invariably tell me that "theses fishes are not on the list" , and therefore the agents between us and Manila's wholesale houses would not pay much or anything for them. Ah ha! Is this point clear? Foremost in collectors minds is catching "money" not livestock. If there is no demand, they will not fish for it.

So, Finally the Wrasses in the Genus Labroides!

This is the genus of obligate Cleaner Wrasses most celebrated for establishing stations in the wild that are frequented by "local" reef fishes and pelagics for removing parasites and necrotic tissue. Perhaps shocking to most aquarists, all the Labroides rate a dismal (3) in survivability, even the ubiquitously offered common or Blue Cleaner Wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus. None of the Labroides should be removed, not only for the fact that almost all perish within a few weeks of wild capture, but for the valuable role they play as cleaners.

Let's get to the fishes to avoid for this installment, and the rationale, or at least offer you my opinions on what it might take to keep them successfully for those who can't be outright dissuaded in their use.

The wrasse family Labridae is well known to aquarists. They are common, often colorful marine reef fishes of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. This is one of the most diversified of all fish families. Size spans a few inches to nearly ten feet; (Cheilinus undulatus, the Napoleon) now, that's a wrasse!

Like the freshwater cichlids, wrasses have protractile mouths, a feature affording great flexibility in prey range and manipulation. There are some four to six hundred legitimate described species; the variable number due to oft-made discoveries of amazing range of structure and color within a species on the basis of sex and size. Check out the photo offerings in Burgess, Axelrod and Hunziker's Atlas of Marine Fishes pages 423-477 for examples of striking differences between juveniles, adults, males and females. Things get even more bizarre when you consider that many wrasses are known to change sex, and that internal physical/structural changes parallel external appearances. Some ichthyological anatomists have likened the diversity in the morphology of wrasse skulls to that of all the bony fishes combined. Take a look at the jaws of California's own Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher.

On with the issue at hand. One of the wrasse family's fifty eight genera is Labroides, with five described species. The most commonly available is the black, blue and white lined Labroides dimidiatus; the other four have other colors, cost much more money (a few to several tens of dollars U.S.) and should not be offered to the hobby, or encouraged to be so by their purchase.

Labroides bicolor Fowler & Bean 1928, the Bicolor Cleaner Wrasse (3), easily recognized, easily lost Indo Pacific beauty. Indo-Pacific, east Africa to Micronesia. To five and a half inches in length. Here are images of a juvenile and adult in Maldives and Fiji respectively.

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Labroides dimidiatus (Valenciennes 1839), the common or Blue Cleaner Wrasse (3). Thousands will be collected today and thousands will die. One out of thousands lives for a year in captivity. Indo-Pacific, east Africa, Red Sea to the Marquesas. To four and a half inches in length. Juvenile in Bunaken/Sulawesi/Indonesia, intermediate phase in N. Sulawesi and an adult, likely for only a short while, in captivity.

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Labroides pectoralis Randall & Springer 1975, the Blackspot Cleaner Wrasse. Indo-Pacific, Christmas Island to the Line Islands. To four and a half inches in length. One in Bunaken/Sulawesi/Indonesia, another off of Queensland, Australia.

The endemic, Labroides phthirophagus Randall 1958, Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (3). To nearly five inches in length. A beauty, but fares no better than other members of the genus and should be left in the islands to do its cleaning, and live. Below, a juvenile in Hawaii, an aquarium and Hawai'i photo of adults.

Verticals (Full/Cover Page Sizes Available
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Labroides rubrolabiatus Randall 1958, the Red Lip Cleaner Wrasse (3), of the Pacific's Oceania ought to be left in the sea as well. To four inches in length. At right, in captivity. Below: On a Moray Eel (Gymnothorax javanicus) in Moorea, French Polynesia, a juvenile in Nuka Hiva, Marquesas and an adult in Fiji.

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Remember that fancy scientific word for "living together"? Symbiosis, oh yeah. As you'll recall there's all sorts of terms describing kinds and degrees of symbiosis; parasitism, mutualism, etc. depending on who's doing what to whom to whose benefit(s).

Cleaning symbiosis involves two different species getting together for mutual advantage, the host having parasites and necrotic tissue removed, the cleaner deriving nutrition and probably protection from predation (just try taking those two wrasses from that moray). Cleaners are further classified as being obligate or facultative. Facultative cleaners do their cleaning and therefore nutrition more or less as a sideline, able and willing to seek other non-parasitic food sources. There are many examples of these facultative part-timers; several angelfishes and butterflyfishes as juveniles, the senorita wrasse (Oxyjulis californica), the Chromide cichlids (sic Etroplus).


Obligates by definition get all or virtually all their nutrient from their cleaning activity; various species setting up permanent cleaning stations with "customer" hosts coming in for regular grooming. Experimental removal of some of these cleaners has demonstrated their immense importance as parasite controls. Local and even large pelagic fish populations are quickly negatively impacted by their removal. Fish populations drop or migrate and remaining fishes lose fitness as measured by increased external parasite loads, sores and torn fins.

Casual diving with the four multi-colorful Labroides species reveals that they are of limited numbers and closely defined distribution. When they are removed, the whole reef population suffers.

Further, these species have not been kept for any length of time in captivity, most dying within a few days to weeks due to a lack of nutritive interaction with host fishes. I have heard stories and seen the endemic Hawaiian cleaner, Labroides phthirophagus accepting dry prepared, freeze-dried, fresh and live foods, still only to waste away and die.

If you want to "practice" on cleaner wrasses, the blue, black and white lined Labroides dimidiatus is the one species that seems more facultative. If you're just looking for a biological cleaner for their services or novel behavior, please consider shrimps in the genera Hippolysmata, Periclimenes, or cleaner gobies. They do the job and do well in captivity, with much less deleterious effect on being removed from the wild.

Imagine going into town for a haircut, a manicure, for medical or dental care only to find these personal services unavailable because some foreign species has hauled off all the providers... Or visualize that you're furnishing these dispensations and now instead of innumerable customers you're translocated to where there are a mere handful. You'd be bugging them all the time, to their annoyance.

Think about this every time you cast your vote by buying livestock at the fish store. The obligate cleaner Labroides wrasses should remain in the ocean, and you should knowingly spend your money on hardier species.

Bibliography/Further Reading

Burgess, Warren E.. 1981. The Genus Labroides. Tropical Fish Hobbyist 2/81.

Fenner, Bob. 1990. Cleaning Symbiosis Among Fish. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium 7,8/90.

Fenner, Robert. 1995. The conscientious marine aquarist, with notes on Cleaner Wrasses. TFH 5/95.

Nelson, Joseph S.. 1976. Fishes of the World. Wiley & Sons, N.Y.

Parker, Nancy J.. 1973. Cleaner Wrasses. Marine Aquarist 4(3)/73.


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