Fairy Wrasse

The Fairy Wrasses are of the genus Cirrhilabrus and make up the second largest genus in the wrasse family.  They make for ideal additions to many saltwater aquariums. They add a diversity of color and activity to the aquarium. These active, bold fish spend their time cruising open water and moving in and out of rockwork in search of food.

Many species of the genus thrive in relatively shallow water and adapt readily to the home aquarium. In nature, fairy wrasse live in the shallow waters of the margins surrounding coral reefs, and therefore quickly feel at home in your reef aquarium. They do not harm corals or invertebrates. Fairy wrasses are planktivores, feeding exclusively upon the plentiful plankton harbored by reefs.

Fairy Wrasse – Sexing

fairy wrasse group male females
Fairy Wrasse “Male” with Females

They are peaceful in nature, and will often coexist happily with other species within the genus Cirrhilabrus – especially when added simultaneously. If you wish to add a fairy wrasse to an aquarium that contains another established fairy wrasse, simply divide it temporarily until the fish coexist with no hostility.  The prefer to form harems and a dominant female will often literally transform itself biologically into the male.  So if you get more than one look for a very colorful one as the dominant “male” and a smaller and less colorful one that will be either the beta or the “female.”

No small males have been found; thus, it is presumed that all male fairy wrasses are “secondary males,” that is, a male resulting from a female that has undergone a sex change, also known as a “protogynous hermaphrodite”  The largest and most dominant females will change into a male when the social order dictates the need for a male. Some events that may trigger this conversion include, but are not limited to, death or capture of the previous male.

If you add a fairy wrasse from the genus Cirrhilabrus to your aquarium, you’ll likely add a male, since males are predominantly collected over juveniles and females but if you look for a smaller and less colorful one of the then it will likely take on the role of the female and reinforce the male, making the males more colorful.

In nature, these fishes form aggregations of one dominant male and several (or more) females, and they spend the better part of their day feeding on zooplankton. The males are always larger and more colorful than the females and will flash or display more vibrant colors during courtship. In all fairy wrasse species the male changes into a different color than the female. This two phase coloration is called “dichromatic.” In some cases coloration varies within the species from location to location.  For this reason sometimes fairy wrasses of the same species will be identified as different species when offered for sale.

Fairy Wrasse Care and Diet

Fairy wrasses can do extremely well in home aquaria, provided a few requirements are met. First and foremost, the aquarium canopy must be completely enclosed.  For aquarists with an open top aquarium, I recommend that they avoid this genus entirely, as it is most likely the fairy wrasse will meet an untimely death when it leaps from the aquarium.

The next consideration would be tank size and decoration. All of the fairy wrasses stay small, but they are also very active fish.  We recommend about a 40-50 gallon aquarium per fairy wrasse for even a smaller wrasse.  Naturally, the larger the aquarium, the better the fish will be.  Mixing fairy wrasses can be done but is best attempted in a larger aquarium.  If the aquarium is too small, the fish may not mix well, and thus they should be separated. Aquariums in the size range of 300 gallons or more can safely mix several species of fairy wrasses. As a general rule, try to never mix two males (same size and bright coloration) of the same species. The tank should contain plenty of live rock, and provide plenty of hiding places.  Fairy wrasses want to have somewhere to get away from other tank mates. However, they will spend the vast majority of their time cruising around the tank, always in search of food.

Another important consideration would be the food you should feed the fairy wrasses. Generally, fairy wrasses will eventually learn to accept most any food offered. In the beginning, however, they can be choosy eaters. Enriched brine can be used as a first food offered, as well as Mysis or plankton. Usually, a healthy fairy wrasse will consume these foods within a day or two of arriving into your aquarium. These foods can remain the staple of their diet, but they will eventually accept any of the other various frozen, freeze-dried, or flake foods on the market. In most situations, your fairy wrasse will supplement its diet by eating the fauna and microfauna on live rock. Use caution when mixing fairy wrasse with other benthic predatory fish such as mandarin gobies or dragonettes in smaller aquariums since they will compete with each other for food.

Another interesting fact is their center pupil is a close-up lens of sorts, enabling the fish to have a magnified view of their small prey so you want a mature tank with a lot of live rock and copepods for them to enjoy in between feedings.

Fairy Wrasse resting in mucous bubble
Wrasse resting in mucous bubble

Fairy wrasse are easily frightened and hide within nearby coral or rockwork until the threat has left the area. They are diurnally active and sleep at night pinned within rockwork, protected by a mucus cocoon which they secrete around themselves.  A similar cocoon in Parrotfish was demonstrated to protect the sleeping fish by masking its scent from the sensitive olfactory nerves of nocturnal predators.

Fairy Wrasse- Compatibility

The last consideration would be tank mates. Fairy wrasses typically get along well with most fish. Only rarely will they directly attack another fish.  They do have downfalls, however. Active fish such as tangs and surgeonfish or large angels are likely to easily startle a fairy wrasse when they dart across the aquarium. Fairy wrasses are also active feeders, so even though they shouldn’t pester other passive inhabitants, it is possible they may out compete them for food. Lastly, the order of addition of these fish into the aquarium should be carefully considered. They should be added before larger, or more active or aggressive fish. However, when mixing with smaller, less aggressive fish, add the fairy wrasses last. Fairy wrasses will not bother corals of any variety, nor most invertebrates. Smaller ornamental shrimp might become food if added after the wrasse is well acclimated, especially if the fish is a larger adult.  If the cleaner shrimp are present before the addition of the wrasse, then success in keeping both in the same tank is much more likely.

Do not put them with toadfish, frogfish, grouper, lionfish, or any other fish that would likely make a meal out of it.  Pipefish and seahorses will not be a good fit because they eat copepods as will but the wrasse will outcompete them for any food.  Pipefish and Seahorses should be kept in species specific tanks or only have extremely passive tank mates that do not compete with them for microfauna and very small food.

Sometimes fairy wrasses will suffer from “ich” (white spot disease) or other infectious diseases. They can be treated successfully with medical care or a copper drug.  A 10 Gallon hospital tank with just a little rock and water circulation and aeration will definitely be needed to avoid treating the entire tank which would decimate the microfauna and invertebrates in the main tank.

Fairy Wrasse Characteristics

Size: From 3 to 5 inches
Diet: Carnivorous.
Tank Setup: Marine. A large amount of live rocks with caves for exploring. They also require areas of open swimming.
Tank Conditions: sg. 1.020-1.025; 72-78°F; pH 8.1-8.4; dKH 8-12
Min. Tank Capacity: 30-50 gallons.
Temperament: Peaceful – Semi-aggressive.
Swimming Level: Middle.
Care Level: Easy to Moderate.

Types of Fairy Wrasses

Cirrhilabrus solorensis aka the red-headed or solar wrasse 

Solar wrasse
Red Headed or Solar Fairy Wrasse

The red-headed or solar wrasse (might even be labeled with other names) comes from Indonesia. Males of this species are highly variable in color. Most of those seen in the aquarium trade have a yellow-orange head with a dark outline to the gill covers, a red eye, a bright white belly, a purplish-blue back, and flanks that most often are turquoise but sometimes green or blue. In some, these colors are only evident when a male is displaying to females or other males, but in others this pattern seems to be permanent. Females, seldom found in the aquarium trade, have a white belly, a red head and forepart of the body, with the rest of the body being yellow.

In the aquarium this fairy wrasse is a bold species that is usually found swimming in open water, often close to the surface. It generally settles in well when first added to the aquarium unless aggressive species are already present. It grows to about 4 inches and, given that it is a very active swimmer, is best kept in a tank at least 4 feet long.

Cirrhilabrus aurantidorsalis aka the orange-back fairy wrasse

OrangeBack Wrasse
Orange Back Fairy Wrasse

The orange-back fairy wrasse is closely related to C. solorensis but is not such a familiar species in the aquarium. Males have a crimson head, the back and upper part of the flanks are orange, the belly is bright blue, and a pinkish-red streak runs along the flanks. As males mature, a darker, crown-like mark appears on the top of the head, and scales along the flanks develop dark outlines. If anything, the colors of this species tend to intensify in the aquarium. This is another bold species that spends its time cruising rapidly around the aquarium, generally high in the water column.   It grows to around 4 inches also.

Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis aka red velvet fairy wrasse or the rosy scales wrasse

red velvet fairy wrasse
Red Velvet Fairy Wrasse

In contrast to the previous two species, the red velvet fairy wrasse (sometimes known as the rosy scales wrasse) is quite a shy fish, especially when kept with boisterous tankmates, although it is bolder when kept with quieter companions. It tends to swim close to the substrate, slipping stealthily between corals. Males are exquisitely colored: When mature, the rear of the body is cream to yellow but the head and forepart of the body are red, with the scales having dark outlines. The fins are bordered in neon blue, the fin rays are purple, and the front of the dorsal fin is yellow or orange.  This is one of the smaller fairy wrasse species, growing to around 3 inches. It should be kept in tanks of 30 gallons or more.

Cirrhilabrus cyanopleura aka the male yellow-flanked or blue-headed fairy wrasse

Yellow Flanked or Blue Headed Fairy Wrasse
Yellow Flanked or Blue Headed Fairy Wrasse

The male yellow-flanked or blue-headed fairy wrasse (the two names refer to different color morphs) is a magnificent fish, but this species is often overlooked by fishkeepers. It is one of the largest Cirrhilabrus species, growing to 6 inches, and also one of the boldest, spending almost all of its time out in open water, often close to the surface.   Despite one of its common names, the head is more often green than blue, although to be fair some blue is often seen suffusing the green.  The rear two-thirds of the body are orange to red, but the scales are outlined in purple. The belly is white. Some individuals have a bright yellow blotch just behind the pectoral fins—and these are often called the yellow-flanked fairy wrasse.  This is a species that seems to improve in the intensity of its coloration as it matures in the aquarium. It is one of the more aggressive fairy wrasses, and this, combined with its relatively large size and active nature, means it is best kept in larger tanks at least 55 gallons.

Cirrhilabrus rubriventralis aka the long-finned or social fairy wrasse 

Long Finned or Social Fairy Wrasse
Long Finned or Social Fairy Wrasse

The long-finned or social fairy wrasse is one of the most familiar fairy wrasse species in the aquarium. It comes from the western Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and grows to around 3 inches. It is one of the less bold fairy wrasses, often tending to stay close to the substrate rather than swimming out in open water, unless kept with very peaceful, passive companions. With the latter it can become the dominant fish in the tank.  This fairy wrasse should be kept in tanks of at least 30 gallons for a single fish, and it is possible to keep a male with several females in tanks over 4 feet long. Males of this species can change their colors very rapidly when displaying to females or other males, and may revert to female coloration (possibly even changing sex) if persistently harassed by another male.  The males of this species, in their display colors, have bright white bellies, with a scarlet head, flanks, and back. The dorsal fin has an elongated first ray, and the pelvic fins are very long. The tail fin has blue spots and streaks.  There are several color variations that can be found.

These are just some of the species of fairy wrasses commonly found for sale in the aquarium trade.  Before adding a new one to your system please research the specifics of the species and plan accordingly.