Fairy wrasses (Cirrhilabrus spp.) sport some of the best color patterns in the saltwater fish kingdom. Throw in personalities MUCH bigger than their size, and aquarists trip over themselves to obtain these “Holy Grail” species. They’re not the most difficult wrasses to manage, either, making them cheery additions to reef tanks.
Table of Contents: Fairy Wrasse Care
Fairies rank as some of the most popular fish in the marine tank world. Even beginners can handle them without too much trouble. So you may want to skip down to link with the element of their care you’re most interested in. Or you could read through the entire article about these fascinating fish.
- Common Names: Lined fairy wrasse, Rhomboid fairy wrasse, Lubbock’s fairy wrasse, Yellow-streaked fairy wrasse, Red-margined fairy wrasse, Yellow fin fairy wrasse, Jordan’s fairy wrasse, Hawaiian fire wrasse, Flame wrasse, Red-headed fairy wrasse, Scott’s wrasse, Multicolored Lubbock’s fairy wrasse, Long-finned fairy wrasse, Solar wrasse, Orange-back fairy wrasse, Red velvet fairy wrasse, Yellow-flanked fairy wrasse, Blue-headed fairy wrasse, Social fairy wrasse
- Scientific Names: Cirrhilabrus spp.
- Size: 4-6 inches (10.2-15.2cm)
- Minimum Tank Size: 55 Gallons (208L)
- Reef Safe? Yes
- Care or Experience Level: Beginner
- Preferred Diet: Carnivore
- Original Part of the World: Indo-Pacific
Fairy wrasses rank as relatively new in terms of classification. Of the 60 species in the Cirrhilabrus genera, only NINE held descriptions before 1980. And eleven made it into the fish identification books after 2000. Of course, the fact that they’re sexually dichromatic (males and females appearing in different color patterns) AND sexually dimorphic didn’t make things easy on the scientific population. Throw in that color can change with regional location – even within the same species – and things get even trickier. But it makes them some of the most vibrant members of the coral reef population.
The males come out on the larger side, and they have the brighter of the two sets of scales. You’ll see impressive displays and even color changes, especially if a male catches sight of a female. Or another male. (Color changes work equally well for seduction and aggression) Unhappily, many aquarists report seeing color LOSS in captivity. Fairies don’t look as impressive away from their native habitats.
As with other wrasses, fairies swim around with their pectoral fins. But these little fish have a couple of other unique adaptations. The first being their eyes. Look closely, and it appears they have a “double pupil.” In truth, the cornea is divided into two segments. This provides a unique close-up lens, allowing the fairy wrasse to magnify their vision. It’s a critical adaptation when you eat itty-bitty prey items.
Next comes the teeth. They have three sets of canines: two on the upper jaw and one on the lower. In the back, they sport recurved teeth (again, in a group of three). The combination makes it easy for them to catch, grasp, and mince the zooplankton that makes up the bulk of their diet. (After those clever eyes help them hunt it down)
The different rainbow of patterns available makes this fish extremely popular. And you’ll find a variety of species available throughout their native Indo-Pacific range. Some of the top choices for aquarists include:
- Jordan’s wrasse (C. jordani)
- Lined fairy wrasse (C. lineatus)
- Long-finned fairy wrasse (C. rubriventralis)
- Lubbock’s fairy wrasse (C. lubbocki)
- Orange-back fairy wrasse (C. aurantidorsalis)
- Red velvet fairy wrasse (C. rubrisquamis)
- Red-headed fairy wrasse (C. solorensis)
- Red-margined fairy wrasse (C. rubrimarginatus)
- Rhomboid fairy wrasse (C. rhomboidalis)
- Scott’s wrasse (C. scottorum)
- Yellow-flanked fairy wrasse (C. cyanopleura)
- Yellow fin fairy wrasse (C. flavidorsalis)
- Yellow-streaked fairy wrasse (C. luteovittatus)
You’ll find fairies across the entire Indo-Pacific region. They’re adaptable little fish hanging out around sandy and rocky reef terrain. Even their preferred depth varies wildly from just beneath the water’s surface to as deep as 600 feet (183m).
Of course, all of that variability helps keep them OUT of the teeth of most predators. They don’t create the most prominent profile in the world. And you’ll find them on the menu of plenty of other fish. This is probably why their lifespan’s so short: only about 3-5 years.
Fairy wrasses enchant aquarists and divers alike with their colors and patterns. And people encounter them EVERYWHERE throughout the tropical Pacific waters. You can also find them throughout the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. And then you can find them off the shores of Hawaii and even as far as the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. Different species prefer shallow waters, while others go into the deep. It’s a wide range that makes them adaptable to most reef habitats.
This makes it easy to set up a tank for these colorful wrasses. As long as you provide room for them to swim and search for food, they’re not particular. Of course, you’ll want to add live rock to provide hiding places, but you don’t need anything elaborate. They’re not burrowers, so you don’t need to fret with deep sand beds.
Fairies ARE shy (a little like their namesake). So natural caves and crannies they can duck into will make them feel safe. It’ll also lower their stress level. Your live rock structures should do that without a problem, though. This will get them away from other fish in the tank, should they need.
Fairy Wrasse Tank Size
Fairies aren’t the largest fish in the world. The biggest species only come in around 6 inches (15.2cm). However, you don’t want to go any smaller than 55 gallons (208L) for a single wrasse. This prevents potential issues with aggression. Fairies are active fish, and if they feel claustrophobic in their tank, they may start to take their problems out on the others in the aquarium.
If you have a harem situation, you’ll need to double your tank size. Trying to pin down and locate females isn’t the most straightforward task in the world, though. And trying to keep two male fairies together? You need at least 300 gallons (1136L) for that! They’re too territorial to go smaller. The same goes if you plan to mix different species of fairy wrasse. Again, it’s not impossible, but make sure you have space.
Then get a tight cover for the tank. In captivity, these wrasses JUMP. This is a flight response unique to home aquaria. In the wild, the extra feet/meters of water when the fish bolt keeps them protected. But in an aquarium, they don’t have that luxury. So when they leap, they end up on the floor, gasping for breath (no wings on these fairies). And ANYTHING can cause them to startle:
- Someone approaching the tank
- Another fish swimming past too quickly
- The lights turning on
- Turning the lights OFF
Some aquarists use condensation trays rather than covers. It’s an option, but your lights will cause the plastic to become discolored. The choice is yours.
Speaking of lighting: make sure you research your species of fairy wrasse carefully. If you choose one of the deep divers, pick dimmer lighting – at least while they adjust to the tank. If you don’t, expect them to hide out while they struggle with the increased intensity.
Are Fairy Wrasses Reef-Safe?
While fairies spend most of their day swimming on the hunt for their favorite zooplankton items, you don’t need to worry about them around your corals. They’re entirely reef-safe. That extra magnification, courtesy of the lens on their cornea, allows them to avoid polyps during their hunts.
You may need to take some care with cleaner shrimp, though. Depending on the size of your crustaceans, a fairy may attempt to snack on them. Try adding your fairies to the aquarium LAST to avoid potential conflicts.
Fairy Wrasse Diet
In the wild, fairy wrasses feed on zooplankton. And while you’re welcome to accommodate them with a well-stocked refugium attached to your tank, it’s not required. In captivity, fairies happily adapt to feeding on almost anything you care to offer.
When first added to a tank, expect to see some picky eating. They’re not as troublesome as some species, but you’ll need to do a little coaxing with enriched brine shrimp. Once they get their appetite jump-started, though, you’re in the clear. Then you can offer them frozen or live proteins to keep them happy:
- Brine shrimp
- Mysis shrimp
If you have tangs that graze on nori or seaweed, you may also see them “follow the leader” and take nibbles of the veggies. And, of course, they’ll graze on the live rock. But – unless they’re the only grazers in the tank – don’t leave the rock as the only source of nourishment. If you have other foragers in the tank, fairy wrasses WILL compete with their tank mates. And they can get aggressive about mealtimes.
Fairy Wrasse Behavior and Tank Mates
As smaller fish, fairy wrasses retreat into hiding when they sense a nearby threat. Unfortunately, they’re popular menu items for other fish on the reef. And, as such, they don’t stay out after dark. Instead, they spin themselves a handy cocoon of mucus (lovely, right?) to sleep in. The mucus disguises their scent, keeping them safe in the rocky niche they adhere to during the night.
While beautiful to behold, fairies aren’t the most tolerant species. Males battle for position within a territory, especially if they’re approximately the same size. The fights can last until one fish leaves the area or surrenders and retreats into hiding. The battles are straightforward in the wild. But this can result in a fairy jumping to the floor or starving in a cave in an aquarium. Snorkelers and divers have seen fairy wrasses with missing scales, bites out of fins, and ragged tails. Untreated, the wounds can develop infections.
This is why it’s essential to choose LARGE tanks when you decide to keep more than one fairy together – or mix species. They don’t get along with each other. And that includes OTHER wrasse species, too, such as the six-line wrasse. While on the small side, these colorful fish can pack a punch – when they want to. And you don’t want to deal with health problems due to fighting.
Fairies do well with most other fish – provided you avoid sudden startle reflexes. You don’t want to test the durability of your cover. And you don’t want to risk a fairy slamming into the side of the tank, which may cause a different kind of injury. Try to add them to your aquarium before more active fish so they can settle in and feel at home.
They’ll cohabitate nicely with any of the following:
You want to skip potential predators – even if you have nocturnal fish that will miss your fairy wrasses in their cocoons. And don’t bring in other fish the fairies will out-compete for food. While tiny, their fierce when it comes to food. You don’t want to set up a situation where they cause another fish to starve. As such, skip these tank mates:
Breeding the Fairy Wrasse
Fairy wrasses are protogynous hermaphrodites. All fish are born female (which makes it ironic that they’re tricky to track down). The capture or death of the dominant male in a group triggers the largest female to undergo a sex change, and she becomes a secondary male.
Witnessing the spawning behavior of fairy wrasses is stunning. You get treated to activity AND colorful displays. The dominant male for a territory will swim through his harem, flashing different metallic colors along his scales. Choosing a gravid female, he then “charges” her to gain her attention. (Which is a reasonably effective technique) He’ll swim in a loop above the group alone, followed by a second loop with the female. During the second loop, they release the eggs and sperm.
You may also witness a third party intervening in the spawning loops. Known as streak spawning, this involves dominant males that AREN’T part of the territory. This intrusive male waits for the pair to reach the top of their loop, then he swims through and releases his sperm at the same time. It provides a greater genetic diversity.
Of course, attempting this spawning process in a captive aquarium? That’s extremely difficult. You’ll need PLENTY of space to maintain a proper harem and swimming room.
Fairy wrasses come in an entire rainbow of colors, and they’re not difficult to manage. However, as with any saltwater fish purchase, you need to examine the pros and cons before adding one to your marine tank.
- Fairy wrasses don’t have challenging demands regarding their décor, tank mates, or diet – allowing any level of aquarist to handle them.
- Disease resistant, you won’t find more than the occasional bout of crypt to deal with – and fairies are usually the last in the tank to succumb.
- Fairies are reef-safe species, though you may need to watch your adult fish around the smaller cleaner shrimp.
- Due to the difficulty with captive breeding, fairy wrasses are usually wild-caught, and costs can vary depending on the shipping costs.
- Male fairies get aggressive with one another – and any wrasse showing similar colors, patterns, or shapes.
- You need a sturdy cover on your aquarium to prevent your fairy from jumping out of the tank as a startle reflex.
For More Information
Fairy wrasses are one of the most popular genera out there. Some species even rank as the “Holy Grail” of fish ownership, prized for their colors and patterns. So who wouldn’t want to learn more about such iconic fish?
This YouTube video shows a Naoko fairy wrasse (C. naokoae) peeking in and out among live rock:
Want to know about some of the best fairy tank mates?
Now that you’re interested in fairy wrasses, perhaps you’d like to know more about other wrasses – even if you can’t keep them in the same tank with your colorful fairies:
You may never find other fish as vibrant as the fairy wrasses. And, other than parrotfish, what other fish spins a mucus cocoon? They’re exciting genera that aquarists clamor for time and time again. Of course, you need to handle that startle reflex with kid gloves – and balance their aggression – but once you have that under control, who can resist?
- Eschmeyer, W.N. 1998. Catalog of Fishes.
- Hunt, P. “Cirrhilabrus: The Fairy Wrasses.” Tropical Fish Magazine. Dec. 2010. p.87.
- Kuiter, R.H. 1992. Tropical Reef Fishes of Western Pacific Indonesia and Adjacent Waters.
- Michael, S.W. 1998. Reef Fishes, Volume One.
- Michael, S.W. 1999. Marine Fishes: 500+ Essential-to-Know Aquarium Species.
- Myers, R.F. 1999. Micronesian Reef Fishes: A Comprehensive Guide to the Coral Reef Fishes of Micronesia.