Parrotfish Species

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Five parrotfish species with their upper jaw lever system premaxilla

There are roughly 95 parrotfish species, with the largest number in the Indo-Pacific. Most species have a maximum length of 30 to 50 centimeters (12–20 inches). A few species reach lengths of one meter (three feet, three inches) or more. The green humphead parrotfish, the largest species, can exceed 1.5 meters (4 feet 9 inches). The smallest species is the bluelip parrotfish (Cryptotomus roseus), which has a maximum length of 13 centimeters (5.1 inches). [Source: Wikipedia]

Traditionally, the parrotfishes have been considered to be a family level taxon, Scaridae. Recent studies retain the Scaridae as a family but place it alongside the wrasses of the family Labridae. The World Register of Marine Species divides Scaridae into two subfamilies as follows :

1) sub-family Scarinae
genus Scarus, first identified by Forsskål in 1775 (53 species)
genus Chlorurus, first identified by Swainson in 1839 (18 species)
genus Hipposcarus, first identified by Smith in 1956 (2 species)
genus Bolbometopon, first identified by Smith in 1956 (1 species)
genus Cetoscarus, first identified by Smith in 1956 (2 species)

2) sub-family Sparisomatinae
genus Sparisoma, first identified by Swainson in 1839 (15 species)
genus Leptoscarus, first identified by Swainson in 1839 (1 species)
genus Cryptotomus, first identified by Cope in 1870 (1 species)
genus Calotomus, first identified by Gilbert in 1890 (5 species)
genus Nicholsina, first identified by Fowler in 1915 (3 species)

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Green Humphead Parrotfish

The green humphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) is the largest species of parrotfish, growing to lengths of 1.5 m (4.9 feet) and weighing up to 75 kilograms (165 pounds).It is found on reefs in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, from the Red Sea in the west to Samoa in the east, and from the Yaeyama Islands of Japan in the north to the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, in the south. It is the only species in the monotypic genus Bolbometopon and is the largest herbivorous fish inhabiting coral reefs. [Source: Wikipedia]

humphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) head

Unlike wrasses, it has a vertical head profile, and unlike other parrotfishes, it is uniformly covered with scales except for the leading edge of the head, which is often light green to pink. Primary phase coloration is a dull gray with scattered white spots, gradually becoming uniformly dark green. This species does not display sex-associated patterns of color change. The adult develops a bulbous forehead and the teeth plates are exposed, being only partly covered by lips. The species is slow-growing and long-lived (up to 40 years), with delayed reproduction and low replenishment rates. The fish sleeps among corals, in caves and shipwrecks at night, usually in large groups.

The large size, slow growth and schooling behavior of humpheaded parrotfish makes them it is susceptible to overfishing. The species is highly sought after by fishermen and have been overharvested in many places. Spearfishers and netters target large groups as they sleep at night. The species was identified as a Species of Concern by NOAA and is thought to be threatened, but is not listed under the Endangered Species Act due to lack of data.. Habitat degradation and reef destruction has accelerated the decline.

Humphead Parrotfish Characteristics and Behavior

Enormous humphead parrotfish (not to be confused with humphead wrasses) have tiny eyes, a pronounced peak and a large bulbous, scarred forehead. One individual can consume five tons of coral a year, contributing significantly to the bioerosion of reefs. Other common names for the fish include bumphead parrotfish, double-headed parrotfish, buffalo parrotfish, and giant parrotfish.

Humphead parrotfish are highly social and usually occurs in small groups — but sometimes large ones, with as many as 75 individuals. — on seaward and clear outer lagoon reefs. Describing a school of humphead parrotfish, David Doubilet wrote in National Geographic, "Long before I seem them, I hear them. The noise comes through the sea like a riot in a dining hall, a smashing and grinding of crockery. The giants are feeding on the reef like the undersea buffalo grazing on stony pastures...Even as they crunch the coral, they excrete white plumes, pulverized coral sand that looks like locomotive steam."

The giant bumphead parrotfish can live to be 40 years old. They use their large head bumps to literally bump heads during competitive displays, when large numbers of fish aggregate to spawn on a lunar cycle. The bumphead parrotfish excretes white sand, which it may produce at the rate of 320 kilograms (700 pounds) a year! [Source: NOAA]

pair of humphead parrotfish swimming around the reef

The green humphead parrotfish, is sexually monochromatic. There is no initial or terminal phase in the life cycle of the adults. The fish spawn pelagically near the outer reef slope or near promontories, gutters, or channel mouths during a lunar cycle, usually spawning just prior to the new moon. They make use of spawning aggregation sites.

Newly settled juveniles are found in branching coral habitats in sheltered lagoons. Small juveniles, less than 50 millimeters, are often associated with Damselfish. Larger juvenile green humphead parrotfish are found in lagoons, often in seagrass beds, and the adults are found in clear outer lagoons and seaward reefs up to a depth of 30 meters. They feed on benthic algae and live corals. Adult green humphead parrotfish may ram their head against corals to break off pieces for easier feeding.

Queen Parrotfish

Queen Parrotfish (Scientific name: Scarus vetula) are native to the Atlantic Ocean and live around the West Indies to Florida in tropical coral reefs of the Caribbean in relatively shallow water.[Source: Cynthia Wilson, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Queen parrotfish have four rows of scales on their cheeks. They have no longitudinal band on their head or body, but a red band near the edge of the caudal fin is present. In regard to their beak-like teeth plates, the lower plate is hidden by the upper plate when their mouth is closed. The fish can be identified by a long, single dorsal fin and a truncated caudal fin. There is some sexual dimorphism (differences between males and females). Males are green-blue, with scales that have yellow centers and distinct yellow lines running from the mouth to the eye. Females are a drab bluish-brown, with a pale band running along the lower side of the fish. Juveniles have two white stripes and a white.

Queen parrotfish reproduce sexually through external fertilization. Breeding occurs throughout the year, with the most activity in the mornings. Typically one male mates with multiple females in what is called harem polygyny:. The dominate male in the group is brightly colored. He spawns with an individual female by first swimming in circles around the females. As he increases his speed and their circles become smaller a female joins him. At this time the gametes are released into the water which are fertilized by the dominant male.. Other males may spawn with females in groups. Offspring have both an egg and a larval stage and a primary and a terminal phase where they change colors. /=\

rusty parrotfish (Scarus ferrugineus)

Queen parrotfish are herbivores. They scrape algae, preferably turf algae, and coral from coral reefs with their fused teeth, crushing the coral and algae mixture in their digestive pharyngeal mill, excreting the indigestible sand. The fish sometimes feeds on sponges. Queen parrotfish sense using touch and chemicals usually detected with smell. They are usually found in small schools of three or four females and a dominant rmale. They are not strong swimmers. They scull around using their pectoral fins. They are only active during the day. At the night they find a crevice to rest and excrete a mucous envelope around themselves. For defense queen parrotfish may spread their fins and attempt to chase away or bite other threatening fish.

Queen parrotfish are not endangered. They are designated as a species of least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and have no special status on according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). They are a large contributor to the production of sand through their digestion of corals and are a major reef attraction. Queen parrotfish are one of the most important contributors to the erosion of coral reefs in places where they live. They also effect the distribution and abundance of Caribbean sponges by feeding on them. The decrease of coral reefs and sponges has caused a decrease in the tourist industry's revenues in some places.

Stoplight Parrotfish

Stoplight Parrotfish (Scientific name:Sparisoma viride) live in the wild for seven to 30 years. With their average lifespan typically being seven to 12 years. They live mostly in clear, tropical, marine environments around reefs or in other coastal areas at depths of three to 50 meters (9.84 to 164.04 feet). [Source: Christopher Kane, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Stoplight parrotfish are commonly found in the tropical the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and western Atlantic Ocean from Bermuda to Brazil, including along the coasts of Florida, Those living on reefs depend on the shelter, protection, and nutrition that densely packed coral provides, particularly one- to two- centimeter-wide tubes of branched finger coral (Porites porites), which provides shelter, protection and food (algae) for juveniles. Young may also be found in seagrass beds. Adults often reside in shallower waters, usually over reef bases. These habitats often characterized by coral species such as staghorn coral, elkhorn coral and boulder star coral. Population density tends to be greater in offshore reefs than inshore reefs, possibly due to increased fishing pressures inshore.

Stoplight parrotfish are fished by humans as a food source and hunted by carnivorous fish including snappers and jacks. eels. Their main known predators are bar jacks (Carangoides ruber), northern red snapper (Lutjanis campechanus), dog snapper (Lutjanis jocu) and moray eels (Family Muraenidae). Little is known about this species' defense mechanisms against such predators.

Stoplight parrotfish help the reef ecosystem by creating habitat and fostering biodegradation. Their biting, scraping, and excreting of coralline algae and coral debris recycles the materials needed for new coral production. Due to their vibrant coloration, stoplight parrotfish can often be found in public aquariums. They are not endangered. They are designated as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List and have no special status according CITES)

Stoplight Parrotfish Physical Characteristics

Stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) adult phase

Stoplight parrotfish can weigh as much as 1.6 kilograms (3.52 pounds) and range in length from 100 to 600 millimeters (four to 23.6 inches), with their average length being 300 millimeters (11.81 inches). Sexual Dimorphism (differences between males and females) occurs: Males are larger than females. Sexes are colored or patterned differently with the male being more colorful. [Source: Christopher Kane, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Scientists often describe stoplight parrotfish them as initial phase individuals (younger or less developed ones) and terminal phase individuals (older or more developed ones). They may continue to grow as they age. Initial phase females range in size from 100 to 367 millimeters (four to 14.4 inches) and terminal phase males are much larger, reaching lengths of over 600 millimeters (23.6 inches).

According to Animal Diversity Web: Stoplight parrotfish have strong, beaklike jaws formed by fused teeth; their bottom teeth fit inside their top teeth. They also have plate-like pharyngeal teeth. These fish have nine dorsal spines, 10 soft dorsal rays, three anal spines, and nine soft anal rays.

Coloration varies with age and sex. Juveniles have reddish brown and black scales, with three rows of white spots along their sides and a vertical white bar on the caudal fin. Their bellies are pale red. Adult females and primary males retain the reddish brown scales and are mottled with white, but no longer have white spots in distinct rows. Their bellies are bright red. Scales of females and juveniles are outlined in gray. Secondary males (fish born as females which but develop into males) lose this coloration, becoming green with diagonal orange bands on the head, yellow spots above and slightly behind the gill openings as well as at the base of the caudal fin, and a sickle-shaped yellowish-orange mark at the end of the caudal fin. /=\

Stoplight Parrotfish Behavior, Perception and Feeding

Stoplight parrotfish diurnal (active mainly during the daytime), motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), sedentary (remain in the same area), solitary, territorial (defend an area within the home range), social (associates with others of its species; forms social groups), and have dominance hierarchies (ranking systems or pecking orders among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates). The size of their range territory is 100 to 300 square meters and have an average daily feeding range of 50-800 square meters. [Source: Christopher Kane, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) juvenile phase

Stoplight parrotfish communicate with vision and sense using vision, touch, sound and chemicals usually detected with smell. They are able to identify potential mates by their color. As is true with most other fish species, they have a lateral line to detect vibrations in the water, a well-developed inner ear for the detection of sounds, and olfactory receptors located in two pairs of nares, found on the head.

According to Animal Diversity Web: Stoplight parrotfish inhabit all portions of a reef, but they are most abundant at shallow reef bases and slopes. Most parrotfish live alone or in small groups. The majority of observed aggressive behaviors have been with other spotlight parrotfish, rather than with other species. These fish use their pectoral fins for vertical locomotion and their caudal fins for quick bursts of speed. Foraging occurs throughout the day, year-round, for an average of 12 hours a day; the most activity occurs at the height of the afternoon during the summer months (up to 14 hours a day), while activity during winter months decreases (to about 10 hours a day). Stoplight parrotfish sleep on the bottom at night.

These fish forage on live and dead coral, and occasionally on detritus. Rather than feeding by scraping corals, stoplight parrotfish excavate coral skeletons, creating deep holes using their strong jaws and regenerative teeth. While they appear to be feeding on the coral itself, the polyps (and their mutualistic photosynthetic zooxanthellae) that exist within the coral skeleton are what actually provides nutrients to the fish. After boring into the coral with fused, plate-like teeth (which resemble a beak), the fish use the pharyngeal teeth located at the back of the throat to grind the coral. Algal nutrients are obtained and the crushed coral debris is deposited as a sand-like waste. Preferred food sources include branched corals, such as elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), boulder star coral (Montastrea annularis), and finger coral (Poritus porites).

Stoplight Parrotfish Mating and Reproduction

Stoplight parrotfish are oviparous (young are hatched from eggs) and iteroparous (offspring are produced in groups). Reproduction is external, meaning the male’s sperm fertilizes the female’s egg outside her body. They engage in year-round breeding, with a peak during the summer. Reports indicate that stoplight parrotfish breed daily. There is pre-fertilization provisioning but no parental involvement in parenting. After depositing eggs, stoplight parrotfish are not engaged in any way in the care of their offspring. The average time to hatching is 25 hours.[Source: Christopher Kane, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Stoplight parrotfish are sequential hermaphrodites in which individuals change their sex at some point in their lives and typically produces eggs and sperm at different stages their lives. They tend to be protogynous (hermaphrodites that have female organs and eggs before male organs and sperm). On average females and males reach sexual or reproductive maturity at age four years. Secondary males may reproduce as females before changing sex.

Stoplight parrotfish are polyandrous, with females mating with several males during one mating season. The fish spawn in deep water reef areas. Primary males often mate in groups with one female, while secondary males claim females as their own to mate with. Secondary males often mate with a female partner, while smaller primary males mate in groups, with multiple males fertilizing the eggs of one female. Secondary males also defend and maintain harems of multiple (usually three to seven) females , mating with them daily.

Stoplight Parrotfish Development

Stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) initial phase

Stoplight parrotfish travel from shallower reef waters to deeper areas to release eggs, where they can carried away by water currents. After hatching, juvenile fish return to shallower reef areas. Eggs are approximately one millimeters in diameter and are negatively buoyant. Larvae, typically 1.4 millimeters long, have no eyes, coloring, or mouths upon hatching. Within three days of hatching, a mouth appears; little else is known regarding development at this stage. [Source: Christopher Kane, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

The development and life cycle of the stoplight parrotfish is characterized by indeterminate growth (they continue growing throughout their lives). According to Animal Diversity Web: Juveniles of both sexes are not dimorphic; following a post-settlement period, they enter their initial phase. The majority of juveniles are female.

Once reaching sexual maturity, some individuals may enter terminal phase; these fish are always male (sometimes known as secondary males or super males) and exhibit the blue-green coloration described above. Individuals that were born as males (known as primary males) will remain males into their terminal stage. Sex changes often occur when population numbers are low, and only involve females becoming males. Most growth and development occurs within the first four years of life; fish will continue to grow throughout their lives, but generally reach a size of 300-500 millimeters (roughly 10-20 inches) at their terminal stage, though larger individuals have been recorded.

Surf Parrotfish

Surf parrotfish (Scientific name: Scarus rivulatus) are also known as scribblefaced parrotfish. The maximum lifespan of wild Surf parrotfish is about eight to 10 years.[Source: Rachel Appelblatt, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Surf parrotfish are native to western the Pacific Ocean and Australia, ranging form southern Great Barrier Reef in the south to New Caledonia in the east, Thailand in the west and the Ryukyu Islands of Japan to the north. They have also been found along the east coast of Malaysia, Okinawa and Ponape

Surf parrotfish inhabit coral reefs and are most numin the mid-shelf region. They may also inhabit inshore reefs. Unlike other scarid species, they often move onto the reef flat at high tide to feed and therefore may be seen in tidal pools (Choat and Randall, 1986). /=\

Surf parrotfish are not endangered. They are designated as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List and have no special status according to CITES.

Surf Parrotfish Physical Characteristics

Surf parrotfish (Scarus rivulatus)

Mature surf parrotfish can range in size from 167 to 400 millimeters (6.57 to 15.75 inches). Scientists often describe them as initial phase individuals (younger or less developed ones) and terminal phase individuals (older or more developed ones). Terminal phase individuals tend to have a short post-transition life span, which is attributed to increased predation due to their brighter colors. The fish have six median predorsal scales; scale rows on the cheek usually with two or three scales in the lower row; 14 pectoral rays; a caudal fin varying from slightly rounded to truncate with the lobe tips slightly prolonged; dental plates covered by lips ( initial phase without canines posteriorly on side of dental plates; terminal phase usually with two small upper and zero to one lower canines). [Source: Rachel Appelblatt, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

According to Animal Diversity Web (ADW): Initial phase individuals usually measure between 167 and 292 millimeters. In the initial phase, primary males and females are generally the same color and size, although males, on average, are slightly smaller than females of the same age. Both initial phase males and females may transition to a terminal phase male, which are larger and more colorful, from 190 to 400 millimeters. /=\

Like many other parrotfish, the coloration of Surf parrotfish changes dramatically at different stages of life. Juvenile surf parrotfish (to about 60 millimeters) have a light brownish to pale olive-tan body, dorsal, and anal fin. The pectoral fins are hyaline, a homogeneous transluscent bluish white color. The caudal fin and caudal peduncle usually have a pale yellow hue. A striped pattern may also occur in solitary fish or in those who are schooling with other young scarid species. /=\

Initial phase surf parrotfish have different colorations depending on their reproductive status and the size of their school. In large schools they usually have a pale gray to light brown body with two or three pale stripes on the lower abdominal region. Solitary fish and those in small social groups may have a more yellow hue on the body with areas of darker shading. Reproductively active individuals may have a uniform dark gray body with pale abdominal striping and a pale margin on the spinous region of the dorsal fin. /=\

Surf parrotfish in the terminal phase exhibit a strikingly beautiful color pattern. The body scales are green and each has an orange basal bar. The face has bright green lines on an orange background and a bright orange operculum. Parts of the dorsal and anal fins may be tri-colored with an orange central region surrounded by blue borders. The caudal fin is also orange with blue margins along the top and bottom of the fin. The pelvic fins are orange and have a bright blue lateral margin. The pectoral fins are chartreuse. In reproductively active terminal individuals the anterior half of the body becomes a dark green color, giving the bodies a distinct bi-colored appearance. /=\

Surf Parrotfish Behavior and Feeding

Surf parrotfish sense using touch and chemicals usually detected with smell and are strictly diurnal (active during the daytime). They are non-aggressive, and are usually found in large feeding schools. Initial phase Surf parrotfish often school with other initial phase scarids of similar coloration, such as globehead parrotfish (S. globiceps) or the common parrotfish (S. psittacus). [Source: Rachel Appelblatt, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Surf parrotfish feed on many types microscopic algae that grow on coral skeletons and other calcareous material. They graze using their fused beak-like jaws only during the daytime and have been observed to increase their feeding rate in the late afternoon. /=\

Surf parrotfish has been characterized as a ‘scraping’ scarid, as it scrapes algae and other materials from the surface of the reef substratum. The jaws are relatively weak, but are able to move a great deal, due to a highly mobile synovial joint between the maxilla and the premaxilla. Its shallow dental plates and weak teeth form an even cutting edge, which although not capable great force, are able to shear algae off of the substratum with ease /=\

Surf Parrotfish Mating, Reproduction and Offspring

Surf parrotfish are polygynandrous (promiscuous), with both males and females having multiple partners. They are also sequential hermaphrodites, in which individuals change their sex at some point in their lives and typically produces eggs and sperm at different stages their lives. Typically they are protogynous (hermaphrodites that have female organs and eggs before male organs and sperm). [Source: Rachel Appelblatt, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Surf parrotfish engage in year-round breeding and engage in external reproduction in which sperm from the male fertilizes the female’s egg outside her body. Pair spawning takes place in deeper areas than those used for feeding. Aggressive mating behaviors are not very common, but a mating pair will defend the area in which they are spawning. Fertilization occurs externally after the eggs have been released from the female

Initial and terminal phase males have different mating behaviors. Initial males usually mate in large spawning groups made up of several males and females. Terminal males almost always pair spawn with a single other female, but have also been observed to participate in group spawning alongside initial phase males. /=\

There is no parental involvement in the raising of offspring. The eggs are simply scattered onto the substratum or released into open water during spawning. Neither males nor females guard the eggs or fry. The larval stage of surf parrotfish is estimated to last between 28-47 days. Once the young have become juveniles they grow continuously throughout their lives.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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