Aquarium Fish: The flame fairy wrasse with observations on spawning

by | Apr 15, 2009 | 0 comments

jordani0.jpgThe Flame Wrasse, Cirrhilabrus jordani, has remained one of the most highly sought after fairy wrasses for over a decade. Even with the influx of rare and never before seen fairy wrasses being collected from far flung, exotic new areas, the flame wrasse remains one of the most brilliant and popular wrasses for the marine aquarium. A month ago I had the opportunity to watch, photograph and videotape a harem of flame wrasses spawn on consecutive nights in a large home aquarium. Although the eggs have not yet been successfully collected, many observations were made about the spawning event and I hope to successfully collect the flame wrasse eggs in the future.

A fairly thorough video look at the courtship display and spawning ascent of the flame fairy wrasse, Cirrhilabrus jordani, hosted at YouTube:

The reason for the flame wrasse’s popularity is as much a practical one as an aesthetic one. Flame wrasses are endemic to the Hawaiian Island group where they are usually collected at intermediate depths. For mainland American aquarists, receiving fish from Hawaii is rather easy and the journey is relatively short so freshly collected Hawaiian fish can be for sale at the LFS within days of capture. This short chain of custody makes for flame wrasse specimens which have not been starved for weeks and they adapt to prepared food and captive conditions very easily. The low rate of die-off and the short transit time makes the flame wrasse one of the more affordable fairy wrasses with high quality males usually available for $130-150 and pairs available for less than $200. On the more aesthetic side of things, the fact that flame wrasses are usually in good physical shape and health means that they often look their best. Whereas some of the more exotic fairy wrasses need to be grown to maturity to display their full potential, many of the male flame wrasses seen in retail stores are at an adult size and they already look stunning.jordani-5.jpg

In the wild flame wrasses are found below 60 feet in large female aggregations with one male to every one to two dozen females. Like all fairy wrasses, the flame wrasse begins life as a female. Of the commonly available fairy wrasses, the female flame wrasse is among the more attractive females in the genus Cirrhilabrus. Females are an overall rosy pink color being more red on the dorsal part of the body with opaque fins and some yellow features on the face. Female flame wrasses can reach up to about 3 inches in length at which time they begin to transform into a male. In the home aquarium the transformation from female to male is inhibited by the prior presence of a male of the species. In the case that a male is already present, the overgrown female may develop into a lurking male with intermediate colors of the male and female flame wrasses. In the absence of a male specimen, a large female or intermediate flame wrasse can develop nearly complete male coloration within 4 to 6 weeks. Some aquarists have reported that the transformation can occur even faster.

jordani-7.jpgThe perfect male flame wrasse is a site to behold. Reaching just a little over 4 inches (10 cm), flame wrasses are on the larger end of the scale, but not the largest species in the genus Cirrhilabrus. When fully matured, male flame wrasses have a bright red dorsal body with red dorsal and caudal fins which is contrasted by a brilliant yellow lower body, anal and pelvic fins. The head and eyes are yellow to orange with a short red stripe below the eye and a red stripe above the eye which is continuous with the dorsal part of the body. A male flame wrasse’s full coloration potential will only be developed in the presence of one or more females. Should you be lucky enough to have a finctioning harem of flame wrasses, you will have the good fortune to see the male flame wrasse’s already stunning colors taken to another level with the nuptial coloration that are exhibited during the courtship display.

In late January 2009, I was tasked with tank-sitting the home of a 600 bow front mixed reef and a 1200 high energy reef while the owner was away on a dive vacation in the Maldives. The 1200 whopper of a reef aquarium is home to to pounds of fish including five jumbo Naso surgeonfish species, four red sea purple tangs, several Acanthurus, many anthias, damsels, dartfish and a harem of flame wrasses consisting of one male and three females. At the time, the flame wrasses had been living in the aquarium for only four months but it is unclear when they first began to spawn. Since I lived with the 1200 reef for over three weeks, I closely watched the activities of the flame wrasses throughout each day and I was able to notice several behavioral patterns about this harem of C. jordani.

jordani-2.jpgBefore I dive into the routines of the flame wrasse harem, I would like to tell you more about the aquarium environment in which the C. jordani felt comfortable performing their spawning activities. The 1200 gallon reef aquarium is 10 feet long, 5 feet wide and 3 feet tall with 1.5″ acrylic panels. The aquarium has been running since summer of 2008 but the living reef portion was assembled from the previous aquarium and many long term captive corals and fish. The tank is visible on three sides with all of the pumps and return located on the end of the tank which abuts the wall to the filtration room. The reefscape consists of two large bommies with a steep reefwall between them and two smaller bommies at the viewable end of the aquarium which are surrounded by a largely open sand zone.

The 5000 watts of light are provided by a cornucopia of 150, 250 and 400 watt metal halides lamps with spectrums ranging from 10,000-20,000K. The system uses no moonlight but the main display lights turn off sequentially producing a gradual decrease in lighting intensity over a period of 2 hrs from about 8-10pm. Additionally, starting around 5pm in the afternoon, one half of the tank is bathed in horizontal sunlight from a western facing window. Water flow in the aquarium is provided by 8 vortech mp40w which are housed in specially designed dry cavities on either side of the overflow box, all at the same end of the tank. Only four of the Vortechs run at any given time such that all of the pumps on one side of the overflow box work together to push a mass of water down one end of the tank. The Peninsular layout of the reefscape favors the formation of a large gyre which moves the entire volume of the aquarium water so efficiently that linear flow speeds can easily be measured up to 20cm/s throughout many parts of the reef. You may be wondering why I am going into such detail about the physical characteristics of the aquarium but I feel it is important for framing the behaviors of the flame wrasse harem.

For most of the day, the female flame wrasses formed a loose group while the male flame wrasse patrolled his fifty square foot reef. The three female flame wrasses were between 2.5-3 inches long and they rarely strayed more than two feet away from each other. This association might not be noticeable in a 4 to 6 foot long tank but in the 10 foot reef, the gregarious behavior was obvious and consistent. The female harem liked to spend most of it’s time foraging around the largest center bommie with some occasional excursions to the open sand area at the viewable end of the reef. For the most part these females preferred to stay close to the bottom and they rarely strayed more than halfway up the tank. Furthermore, the females consistently swim at a leisurely pace, carefully inspecting the live rock and sand looking for little bits of food.jordani-6.jpg

By contrast, the male flame wrasse’s behavior was markedly different as he preferred to swim in the top half of the tank, moving quickly throughout the aquarium from one end to the other. For the first half of the day the male maintained a normal red and yellow coloration and he would occasionally come close to the substrate to look for food or casually swim with the females. The male’s color became increasingly more nuptial as the day progressed and beginning by about early afternoon, the male started to engage the females with courtship displays. The nuptial coloration of the male is an intensification of the normal color that also includes the expression of a cobalt to blue oval outlining the male’s body. The nuptial coloration also turns the facial stripes from red to blue and together with the oval the male appears to be wearing a blue bridle when the nuptial coloration is fully expressed. When in full nuptial garb the male flame wrasse looks like a completely different fish.

jordani-4.jpgAlthough the male’s nuptial displays began in the early afternoon, they started to really kick into high gear after the hour of direct sunlight, once it started to become dark outside. Towards late afternoon the male would flare up, swimming very rapidly while dive-bombing and tightly circling the female flame wrasses. Sometimes the male flame wrasse became over-excited and he often presented the near complete display to similar looking small female anthias. The male flame wrasse would also present the display to his reflection in the aquarium glass. Towards early evening, as the lights began to go out on the aquarium, the entire harem of females would gradually migrate towards the large bommie at the other end of the tank. Whereas the female flame wrasses are visible and out in the open for most of the day, as the available light decreased the females became increasingly attached to the reef structure and more reclusive.

Meanwhile, as the twilight period descended on the reef, the frequency of the male nuptial displays increased from 15 to 30 second displays every few minutes to longer displays that are punctuated by a few minutes of downtime. Once the reef lighting was reduced to just a few remaining halide bulbs, the nuptial displays became much more emphatic and pronounced. By the time that spawning became imminent, the male’ started to do up and down vertical swimming with some fluttering of the caudal and posterior dorsal fins. At this point, it was up to the females hiding in the bommie to come out and initiate the actual spawning ascent. A few preliminary attempts eventually led to full ascents with a visible release of gametes. Althought the pre-spawning nuptial displays and buildup is quite exciting, the actual release of spawn and gametes is anticlimactic. Once the release of gametes occurred, I was left wondering how in the world do you collect these tiny eggs, from fifty square feet of water surface. The water flow was turned off and within minutes thousands of tiny little shapes could be seen rising towards the surface like minuscule little air bubbles. When these slightly buoyant eggs reached the surface they could be seen to bounce under the surface of the water. Having a little bit of experience with sub-millimeter cells and without actually measuring them I would guess that the eggs were about twice the size of a rotifer, about 100 microns or 1/10th of a millimeter.

I cannot explain why the spawning activity centers around one particular bommie and I hesitate to place any real significance on the spawning location. My only thought is that the bommie provides a calm vertical reef surface which is bordered by high water flow areas and the wrasses were stimulated to release their gametes into water current. The lack of a specific moonlight involved in this and other spawning events further rebukes the notion that marine fish need moonlight to stimulate spawning. The tank is home to many different marine fish including many large tangs and anthias which seemed not at all to interfere with the spawning activities. Aside from a cleaner wrasse, there were no other wrasse species in the aquarium. The reef aquarium is fed a generous amount of food twice a day with a menu consisting of Reef Nutrition, Rod’s Food, Cyclopeeze and New Life Spectrum.

The Hawaiian flame fairy wrasse is an awesome aquarium fish. The male and female of the species both look great and they are easily paired. Since this fish is endemic to the American island state of Hawaii, this fish is easily obtained in the U.S high quality specimens of C. jordani are well represented in aquarium stores from coast to coast. As marine aquarists become increasingly successful at keeping pairs and harems of the same species, we can look forward to reading about reef fish spawning events on a more regular basis.


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