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Related FAQs: Razorfish Wrasses, Dragon Wrasse, Wrasses, Wrasse Selection, Wrasse Behavior, Wrasse Compatibility, Wrasse Feeding, Wrasse Diseases,  

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

Razorfishes, Family Labridae

By Bob Fenner

A juvenile Xyrichtys pavo in Hawai'i

Within the great group of fishes we call wrasses (pretend you're leaving out the "w" when pronouncing their name) are an artificial assemblage called the Razorfishes. Most marine aquarists are familiar with only their most prominent member, the dragon or Indian wrasse, Novaculichthys (formerly Hemipteronotus) taeniourus. As collection and demand for novel specimens has grown, more species and individual Razorfishes are making their way into the trade.

As wrasses go, Razorfishes are a mixed blessing as aquarium fishes. They all get to appreciable size and are moderately aggressive. Their saving grace is intelligence, odd shape, swimming an other appealing captive behavior. Razorfishes provide endless wonderment for aquarists with large systems and tough tankmates.

Taxonomy; Relationship To Other Groups:

The systematics of the family Labridae and their Razorfish members is a mess, but has been much worse. It turns out that in many species, the male, female and juveniles are markedly different in color/markings and structurally. Further, there are often intermediate sex change (female to male) differences and even different types of males. In "harem" species, the alpha male being the largest, most colorful, and aggressive.

Wrasses are closely related (in the same Suborder Labroidei) to the Parrotfishes, Family Scaridae. Both have large cycloid scales, a thick caudal peduncle (the body trunk right before the tail) and a broadly truncate (square) tail fin. Parrots and wrasses are easily distinguishable by the differences in their dentition; Scarids have beak-like teeth. Those of the labrids are separate, almost fang-like.

Many of the wrasses are popular aquarium fishes, and rightly so. They have comical, active swimming, food-searching and other behaviors, are great at getting along with all sorts of other tankmates, and possess some of the most brilliant colors and patterns in the animal kingdom. Beware of these generalizations though; some wrasses get too big (one to almost three meters), and sometimes an individual will develop a mean streak.

There are at least sixty genera and ten times as many species of wrasses. Razorfishes are mainly confined to the genera Novaculichthys (Hemipteronotus) and Xyrichthys (see Randall). There are other genera still recognized as Razorfishes by other authors, but I'll adhere to the above two. Razorfishes and wrasses en toto are found in tropical to semi-temperate seas worldwide.

Genus Cymolutes: Three valid species.

Cymolutes lecluse (Quoy & Gaimard 1824), the Sharp-Headed Wrasse. Hawaiian endemic. To seven inches in length. Cruises over/under sandy areas, feeds on fishes. Female in Maui, male off of Kailua, Big Island photos.

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Genus Iniistius:

Iniistius aneitensis (Gunther 1862), the Yellow-Blotch Razorfish. Indo-Pacific: Chagos to Hawaiian Islands, Micronesia. To 24 cm. Here in N. Sulawesi.

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Iniistius pavo (Valenciennes 1840), the Peacock Wrasse... to 35 cm. Red Sea to Eastern Pacific. N. Sulawesi pic.

Iniistius pentadactylus (Linnaeus 1758), the five-fingered Razorfish. Indo-Pacific: Red Sea and East Africa to the Pacific. To 25 cm. Bali 2014
Iniistius umbrilatus (Jenkins 1901), the Razor Wrasse Fish... to 17.5 cm. Eastern Central Pacific; endemic to Hawai'i. Big Island pix.

Genus Novaculichthys:

This genus contains the most prominent "Rock Mover" or Razorfish species, The Dragon Wrasse, N. taeniourus (Lacepede 1801)(formerly in the genus Hemipteronotus). There are actually a few other genera (e.g. Xyrichthys) and several species of these specialized, wedge-headed fishes in the Worlds tropical seas. Most are too plain, or get too rambunctious to be of interest/use to aquarists. All are prodigious diggers and movers of decor that need digging room, substrate and well assembled decor to prevent toppling.        Novaculichthys taeniourus  (Lay & Bennett 1839) the Rock Mover, Dragon or Indian Wrasse (2) is a very hardy fish that is more often killed by aquarists than dies from other influences. As an aquarium specimen this species requires regular "beefy" feedings of animal-based foods. It is a gluttonous feeder that quickly starves if underfed. Not for reef tanks, Razorfishes are territorial and aggressive fishes. To about a foot in length.  Juvenile in the wild (Hawai'i), one in captivity and adult in Hawai'i shown. One other species in this genus. Not used in the trade.

Genus Xyrichtys

Xyrichtys martinicensis Valenciennes 1849, the Rosy Razorfish. West Atlantic; Florida to South America. To six inches in total length. A distinct dark spot at base of pectoral fins. A terminal phase (male) individual here off Cozumel, and initial and terminal phase individuals below in Bonaire. 

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Xyrichtys novacula Pearly Razorfish. Pinkish to pale-gray bodied, steep forehead. Terminal phase/male in Bonaire 2019.

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Xyrichtys pavo Valenciennes 1840, Peacock Wrasse. Indo-Pacific; Red Sea, eastern African coast all the way over to the tropical eastern Pacific coast, Hawai'i... To sixteen inches in length. Occasionally offered to the trade as juveniles. Often mistaken for leaf litter in the wild. Feeds on crustaceans, mollusks. 
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Xyrichtys splendens Castelnau 1855, the Green Razorfish. Tropical West Atlantic; Bermuda to Brazil. To a mere seven inches in length. Commonly found in seagrass beds and surrounding sandy areas. Terminal phase aquarium image at right. Below, juvenile, initial phase/female and terminal phase/male off of Cozumel Island, Mexico. 4-30 feet. 

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Razorfish Physical Characteristics:

Beyond the "standard" wrasse profile, being strongly laterally compressed, thick caudal peduncle, large cycloid scales, bearing square tails, Razorfishes have some distinct peculiarities. Their heads are squarish with the leading edge often sharp. And this isn't the only reason for their common name; these fishes bite! Check out the prominent pair of enlarged canines in their non-protractile mouths. Those teeth are razor sharp.

Another salient trait is the presence of one or two flexible dorsal spines that makes up the far anterior of the dorsal fin that extends beyond the insertion of their gills. Yes, these wrasses are unmistakable.


Whether you're looking at a good/bad specimen should be based upon behavioral assessments as well than appearances. Is the animal swimming "normally"?, Will it take the foods that you will be offering? One physical trait that should make is the specimens full-bodiness. Is it well-fleshed?

Tear marks around the mouth or eyes disqualify a purchase. These are signs of previous bullying and/or starvation. Rarely do such specimens rally.

Almost all Razorfishes that "make it" to the retailer's will live. Most difficulties with them lie in the crowding and rough handling they receive between capture and wholesale/transshipping; they are strongly territorial with members of their own and related kind and unfortunately all too often crowded together.


It is easy to generalize re the order of introduction of these fishes. Being aggressive and territorial they should be put in last, after all other livestock have been placed.

Don't fear the worst if your Razorfish seems to stay under the sand, or in the shadows a good deal of the time. Unless you observe evidence of a tankmate bullying it, this is likely it's natural behavior.

Behavior: Territoriality

These wrasses are problematical with smaller, delicate tankmates. Otherwise, all species are territorial with members of their own kind. What this comes down to for the aquarist is the need to be observant in keeping an eye on every fish in a system.

Catching Your Own?

These fishes are captured in two principal ways; by hook and line with meaty baits (Shen & Yeh) and via hand-netting. Razorfishes when ha-wrassed (I couldn't help myself) will dive into the substrate, completely covering themselves in sand. The diver-collector deftly scoops up the sand and fish, sifts out the former, and voila(!), the prize.

Environmental: Habitat

Razorfishes live in coral reefs around sand and rocky clefts. They bear the wrasse hallmarks of secretive reef existence; cryptic coloration and patterns, tube shapes for slipping into cracks or below the sand. Your razorfish species will do better to have a broken rock/coral area and at least some area with fine sand to bury (where they sleep) and tunneling/re-arrangement.

A razor in your reef? Don't even think about it.

Filtration needs to be vigorous with these large, heavy-eating wrasses about; they are active, big-appetite fishes that defecate a great deal and keep the bottom thoroughly stirred.

Foods, Feeding:

Razorfishes are carnivorous and omnivorous, feeding on a mix of mollusks, brittle stars and crustaceans in the wild. In captivity they consume meaty foods, shrimps of all sorts, mollusks and worms; live, frozen, dry-prepared. The family name, Labridae is derived from the Greek "labros", meaning "greedy". This term best describes their love of eating. It's best to develop a "feeding routine" with these fishes and other eager eaters (take care if hand-feeding them, remember, they bite).

By queuing the system, through routine exercise, some food might be placed in one corner for the more aggressive feeders while other foods are placed via a dowel or put in at the opposite end for less-greedy tankmates.


Different species are known to be protogynous (first a female) or protandrous (male). On seeing them in the wild, my impression is that Razorfishes are largely non-haremic, instead forming close pairings.

I have found no reference to observed spawnings.


Razorfishes tend to be remarkably resistant to infectious and parasitic diseases. Be aware that like other wrasses these fishes "scratch" a lot by glancing off aquarium decor and the bottom. This is natural; probably a means for revealing food items in the wild.


Razorfishes are not for everyone; they get large and nasty. If you have a large, aggressive fish-only system and lots of cover you might want to try one; just be careful when feeding and netting around those sharp teeth.

These wrasses will reward you with constant day-time rearrangement of gravel and decor, eating every other tankmates portion of food, and alpha status, giving other fishes a chance to lord over their domain while they sleep under the substrate.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Burgess, Warren E. 1977. The dragon wrasse. TFH 8/77.

Campbell, Douglas. Marines: their care and keeping; wrasses, parts 1,2. FAMA 12/80, 1/81.

Emmens, Cliff W. 1985. Wrasses. TFH 7/85.

Engasser, Sandy. 1971. Fish of the month; wrasses. Marine Aquarist 2(4):71.

Friese, U. Erich. 1977. Wrasses. Marine Aquarist 7(8):77.

Hoover, John P. 1995. Hawaii's wrasses, parts 1,2. FAMA 5,6/95.

Parker, Nancy J. 1975. A demon dressed in scales (dragon wrasse). Marine Aquarist 6(6): 75.

Randall, John E. 1965. A review of the razorfish genus Hemipteronotus (Labridae) of the Atlantic Ocean. Copeia 1965(4):487-501.

Shen, Shih-Chieh & Hsin-Sheng Yeh. 1987. Study of the Razorfishes, genus Xyrichthys (Labridae) of Taiwan. Journ. Taiwan Museum 40(2):61-71.

Wellington, Gerard M. 1992. Xyrichthys victori, a new species of razorfish from the Galapagos Islands (Teleostei: Labridae)


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