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FAQs on: Leopard Wrasses 1, Leopard Wrasses 2,
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Leopard Wrasses Identification, Leopard Wrasses Behavior, Leopard Wrasses Compatibility, Leopard Wrasses Stocking/Selection, Leopard Wrasses Systems, Leopard Wrasses Feeding, Leopard Wrasses Disease, Leopard Wrasses Reproduction,

Related FAQs: Leopard Wrasses, Wrasses, Wrasse Selection, Wrasse Behavior, Wrasse Compatibility, Wrasse Feeding, Wrasse Diseases,  

Related Articles: The Diversity of Wrasses, Family Labridae, Cook Islands Wrasses

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Leopard Wrasses, the Genus Macropharyngodon;
Hardier Than They Used To Be

By Bob Fenner

  Macropharyngodon geoffroy

The Leopard Wrasses is the common appellation tied to these fishes for their "spotted" and mottled appearance, as well as their large pharyngeal teeth. All ten species are small (four to six inches) reef dwellers that can only be kept for any period of time in full-blown reef systems. Even then, the best any of the group can rate is a (2). Most are lost to simple starvation, stress and the rigors of collection, holding in small volumes, and transport.

One might assume with the common name 'Leopard' that the Wrasses of this genus would be 'tough as big cats'. Such is not the case unfortunately. These fishes are named for their prominent pharyngeal teeth (hence the scientific name Macropharyngodon'¦ 'Large, throat, teeth') and mottled/spotted appearance of most the species. Actually, I'd throw in mention of their stealthy, stalking feline behavior as well.

            The ten or so described species of Leopard Wrasses are all small (4-6 inches overall maximum), small-invertebrate feeders of sand-burrowing propensity, shyness overall that really can only be kept healthy and happy for any real length of time in good-sized established reef systems. Even provided these conditions, more than half of specimens sold die within a few weeks of capture; mostly due to the vagaries of collection, cumulative stress, and placement into untenable situations proving too much for them. Here I'll delve into this last, and proffer input re selecting healthy individuals, and assuring their proper care.

Macropharyngodon Species on Parade! Here are the most commonly available, though none are on offer at all times.

Macropharyngodon bipartitus (Was two subspecies, M. b. bipartitus Smith 1957 and M. b. marisrubri Randall 1978, the first found in the western Indian Ocean, but not the Red Sea, the latter found in the Red Sea's upper Gulf of Aqaba. No discernible differences in appearance or survivability to aquarists; now recognized as two/separate species. (3's)) To about four inches in length. Shown at right: a pair in the Maldives. Below, a terminal/male specimen in captivity.


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Macropharyngodon choati Randall 1978, Choat's Wrasse (2) is rare and expensive, coming only from east Australia. To three inches in length. Australian photo of juvenile and aquarium one of an adult male.

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Macropharyngodon geoffroy (Quoy & Gaimard 1824), Potter's Leopard Wrasse (3). Found in Hawai'i to Micronesia and the East Indies. A Batesian mimic, look-alike for Potter's Dwarf Angelfish, Centropyge potteri. A very delicate species. Kona and aquarium photos.

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Macropharyngodon marisrubi Randall 1978, Red Sea Leopard Wrasse. This is apparently the Red Seaextension of M. partitus of the Indo-Pacific. Initial phase/female individual off of Sharm.  https://reefbuilders.com/2013/05/16/red-sea-leopard-wrasse-species-macropharyngodon-marisrubri/


Macropharyngodon meleagris (Valenciennes 1839),  the most common species offered in this genus to the aquarium trade, is either THE Leopard or Guinea Fowl Leopard Wrasse (3). Indo-Pacific; Cocos Keeling to the Western Pacific. To six inches in length. Below: A one inch juv. in Fr. Polynesia, an aquarium photo of an initial phase individual, and a spectacular terminal (male) phase one in Eric Russell's aquarium.

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Macropharyngodon negrosensis Herre 1932, the Black Leopard Wrasse (3) is usually offered as a "miscellaneous" item. Only the ones from Australia generally live. Indo-Pacific; Andaman Sea to Samoa. To nearly five inches in length. A juvenile off Ambon and two initial phase (females) in an aquarium and Redang, Malaysia. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/Summary/speciesSummary.php?ID=4985&genusname=Macropharyngodon &speciesname=negrosensis 

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Macropharyngodon ornatus Randall 1978, the Ornate Leopard Wrasse (3), or False Leopard. Best from Australia and Sri Lanka. Indo-Pacific; Sri Lanka to New Guinea. To a bit over five inches in length. Aquarium and N. Sulawesi pix. http://fishbase.sinica.edu.tw/Summary /speciesSummary.php?ID=12724&genusname=

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            I have alluded above to these fishes penchant for zooming about their captive and natural reefs continuously by day. Do know that they are notable for burrowing and staying under the surface of sand substrates if frightened and often during night. We should re-emphasize this behavior'¦ your new Macropharyngodon may well dive into the sand on first introduction and stay there for days. This flight may not necessarily be from fright, but just an adjustment to the fish's circadian rhythm'¦ having been caught, shipped from several time zones away in just recent days. Other than looking about in the floor to discern if it has made its way out somehow, I urge patience, NOT stirring the sand up to find your errant wrasse. Rest assured, with time, it will re-surface.

Compatibility, Reef-Ready:

            Macropharyngodon wrasses rarely harass invertebrates, rather than quite small worms, mollusks and crustaceans, and get along with all other reef fishes, with the exception at times of members of their own genus. If placing more than one, you are advised to place them all at once, or barring this, to introduce only a single male per system, and smaller initial phase individual/female in turn. To be clear, only one male should reside in any given tank, unless it is of huge volume; and only with one female unless the system is hundreds of gallons in volume. Most of the time, these fishes are encountered in the wild in groupings of smallish females w/ perhaps a few sexually undifferentiated young swimming about with them in tow. On occasion, if you have good vision and are keenly looking about, you may see a male (they are wary of divers), perhaps with a larger female in association.

            Occasionally, similar-appearing wrasse species do conflict with Leopards, with some Lined wrasses (Pseudocheilinus), Thalassoma, Coris spp. and some Halichoeres spp. and often-enough, Hawkfishes (Cirrhitids), and some Dottybacks (Pseudochromids) notably fighting with them for space. If these groups of fishes must be stocked with Macropharyngodon species, the leopard wrasse/s should be placed first.



            Leopard wrasses can be quite hardy; given the availability/selection of initially healthy specimen/s, suitable setting, and provision of nutritious foods. They're perhaps well-compared with Mandarin Dragonets, being subject to too-easy starvation if not provided with the right types of foods on a regular basis. IF you doubt the sustainability of your substrates in producing such live foods, I strongly encourage you utilize a good-completely nutritious and palatable prepared staple. My favorite among all others is New Life Spectrum small (1 mm.) pellets. Yes, this is not a mis-print and is a (rare for me) endorsement of this excellent line.

            For picking out good ones, look for clean 'full' bodies (not thin), a lack of torn fins, clear/bright eyes, regular breathing and swimming behavior, and no obvious damage about the mouth'¦ and the time-tested 'acid test' that the fish/es are feeding'¦ on foods you can/will be offering.

            Smaller, initial phase (female) individuals adapt much more readily than already-male larger specimens. These last almost always ship poorly, being too 'high strung' to be confined in small spaces.

            Leopard wrasses I class with small blennies, Gobioids as best to not leave at the store/supplier too long'¦ more than a few days at most, perhaps even 'picking up' on arrival if practical. The important take-home point here is to make sure you don't procure too-thin specimens; as these rarely rally, return to a good index of fitness.



            Heed these words: Deep-fine-sand bed, well-established reef system, with copious amounts of small crustaceans, worms (and likely mollusks and more). These fishes are avid burrowers, hence the need for finer, rounder (not angular like silicates) sand'¦ Sugar fine aragonitic substrate is ideal, with sharper, larger grades causing stress, damage, secondary infection and death. Wholesalers often 'get by' offering a small tray of such sand'¦

They require stable, optimized chemical, physical water conditions'¦ and a good deal of substrate derived live food items to subsist on. The operation of a vibrant, food-culturing refugium of size is a bonus in their care for sure.

            Systems under a hundred gallons, with less than a hundred pounds of good quality (not too old, depauperate) live rock need not apply. The likelihood of success in keeping Leopard wrasses in smaller systems is too small. They need the room to move, have a sense of being able to get away, and the surface area for foraging.

            And a remarking re the need to completely cover the top of the system, not just have the water level down a few inches; as these Labrids can really launch themselves out of systems w/ small-enough openings topside.



            The absolute need for nutritious foods has been mentioned enough here. If you can't provide live items, frozen-defrosted meaty foods of small, bite-size (Mysids, Cyclops, Copepods'¦) should be offered a few times (2, 3 plus) as well as small pelleted food. To acquaint unfamiliar fishes with the Spectrum, successively mix some higher percentage of the dried sinking food in with other offerings. I've yet to see a fish that didn't learn to take this food in relatively short time.



            Perhaps anathema to what you've heard others espouse, I would not quarantine Macropharyngodon. There's much more to be potentially lost than gained through added stress, likely damage (from the fish dashing about) and extended non-feeding by delaying Leopard wrasse placement in permanent main/display settings. If anything, I might, if the specimen/s appear 'strong enough', subject them to a few minutes pH-adjusted freshwater bath (sans formalin), to 'knock off' possible external parasites.

            Perhaps related to their adaptations to sand burrowing, these fishes rarely suffer from the usual external Protozoan scourges of tropical reef fishes. If they're to be treated for such, quinine compounds are strongly advised, rather than dye, metal salts, or formalin-containing products.



            Unlike many Labrid genera, Leopard wrasses are easily distinguished as to sex; and terminal phase (male) individuals in good health are quite striking in appearance; see Dr. Randall's images for species on Fishbase.org. Males are larger in body size, a bit too much more colorful, and definitely much shyer than females. Like other wrasses, they are protogynic synchronous hermaphrodites'¦ First becoming functioning females from sexually undifferentiated juveniles and then becoming males.

Spawning events in captivity in hobbyist and institutional set-ups have been recorded, though no young have yet to be raised in captivity.



            Times were, virtually all Macropharyngodon wrasses imported died within days to weeks of collection; and still likely more than half don't survive the travails of collection, holding, shipping or meet their maker through improper housing and/or lack of available amounts of useful foodstuffs. Despite all this, you can successfully keep these fishes given practice at selecting good individuals and providing for their basic care as outlined here. Yes, the 'odds are not great' with keeping these fishes, but their collection, holding and shipping have greatly improved in recent years, so your likelihood of being able to buy not-doomed specimens is greatly improved.

Should you have a very well-established, large, healthy reef tank, and are looking for a small, colorful, interesting-behaviorally fish addition, do consider the leopard wrasses.


Bibliography/Further Reading:

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

Emmens, Cliff W. 1985. Wrasses. TFH 7/85. Kuiter, Rudie H. & Helmut Debelius. 1994.

Southeast Asia Tropical Fish Guide. Tetra-Press. Melle, Germany. 321pp.

Michael, Scott W. 1992. Leopard wrasses. SeaScope vol.9, Spring 92. & AFM 8/99

Randall, John E. 1978. A revision of the Indo-Pacific Labrid genus Macropharyngodon, with descriptions of five new species. Bull. Mar. Sci. 28: 742-770

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

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