Fish Tales by Henry C. Schultz III

The Leopards of the Reef


This month I'll introduce some of the most exotic looking fish of the reef as well as my favorite fish genus, Macropharyngodon, appropriately known as the Leopard Wrasses. Their interesting patterns and coloration, as well as the relaxed and peaceful nature of the fish in this genus makes them a great addition to a community aquarium. Their unique swimming characteristics put them on display throughout the daylight photoperiod, and their beauty makes them a favorite of many aquarists. Unfortunately, Leopards are not for all hobbyists. Without certain needs being met, they are sure to meet an untimely death.

Meet the Family

The Labridae family is one of the largest reef fish families, consisting of over 500 species. All wrasses, with the exception of Conniella apterygial, swim with their pectoral fins. Additionally, they have a dorsal fin with 8 to 21 spines and 6 to 21 soft rays, and an anal fin with 4 to 6 spines and 7 to 18 soft rays (Michael, 1998). Of the 60 genera within Labridae, only 18 are found in the tropical western Atlantic (DeLoach, 1999). Macropharyngodon contains 10 species and 1 sub-species, all of which swim in Pacific waters.


Labridae:

Macropharyngodon

° bipartitus
bipartitus
marisrubri
° choati
° cyanoguttatus
° geoffroyi
° kuiteri
° meleagris
° moyeri
° negrosensis
° ornatus
° vivienae

Catalog of Fishes

All Leopard wrasses are born as females and protogynous hermaphrodites; that is, they change to males when their growth, age, or certain social criteria are met. When the time comes, the sex change will take place in as little as 2 weeks from start to finish, although sperm production may begin in as little as 8 days (DeLoach, 1999). This sex change is irreversible, and is usually associated with a color change. In fact, most Leopard wrasses have at least three color phases: 1) the juvenile phase, consisting of sexually immature fish, 2) the initial phase of sexually adult females, and finally 3) the terminal males, with the largest and most dominant fish of the pair or harem always being a male. The terminal male in Macropharyngodon is known as a secondary male due to the sex change required to become a male. Primary males are not possible in Macropharyngodon because no Macropharyngodon is born as a male. Males of M. choati do not have a color change associated with their sex change, though they do develop a pattern change as they age (Baensch, 1994).

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Macropharyngodon ornatus - note the black spot at the base of the pectoral fins.
In The Wild

Macropharyngodon geoffroyi is the only Leopard wrasse that can be found in U.S. waters, making its limited appearance around Hawaiian waters. The remaining 9 species and sub-species are found in the west-central Pacific waters, ranging from the Indian Ocean to the Great Barrier Reef. They will defend a territory that usually has at least one female. Harems are possible and can number up to 7 to 10 females. The defended territory always contains a sandy bottom, usually located in waters ranging from 2 - 125 feet deep. The Leopards use the sandbed as their place to sleep, as well as for their defense. Every night when the Leopards retire, they dive into the sandbed, leaving no tell-tale signs except for a small cloud of sand dust, which quickly dissipates. It is there that they sleep until the sun rises again, at which time they slowly rise out of the sandbed and inspect their surroundings before fully emerging. Sand sometimes sticks to their slime coat for a few minutes after waking, but will usually be blown off by the currents in short order. In my experience, Leopards seem to remain "groggy" for up to 10 minutes after waking. They have a tendency to swim around with no goal or purpose. This is quite unlike their normal swimming characteristics that have them constantly foraging rocks and rubble for endless supplies of shelled protozoa. The sandbed also affords them an excellent place to avoid predators, and when stressed or frightened, they are quick to dive into the sand for safety.

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Macropharyngodon geoffroyi, also called the Potter's Leopard wrasse, is seen here in the author's aquarium, and can be found ranging from Hawaii to the East Indies.

All Macropharyngodon species feed primarily on small, shelled protozoa called foraminiferans, and snails. Copepods and amphipods make up a small portion of their diet. The foraminiferans are picked from the reef using their small canine teeth, and are quickly pulverized with their large pharyngeal teeth. Sessile inverts are completely ignored, as are the majority of other fish. Leopards only behave aggressively when two males are present within the same territory. The more dominant male will defend his females and territory, usually with a very quick dash at the intruder followed by a subsequent heated chase which removes the intruding male by as much as 20 or 30 feet from the spawning site (DeLoach, 1999).

In the Home Aquarium

Leopard wrasses can do extremely well in appropriately designed reef aquariums, or they can die very quickly in a tank that is set up without their best interests in mind. Once fully acclimated and established, Leopards have been kept for up to 5 years, while less well-documented reports of 8 years or more have been noted. The tricky part to their care in captivity is getting the Leopard wrasse eating well and situated into its new home. To help ensure a successful transition, several key factors must be taken into consideration.

The first step in acquiring a healthy Leopard is proper selection. Due to their poor response to shipping, it is impossible to ensure a healthy Leopard wrasse when purchasing via mail order. These fish must be viewed prior to purchase. The first key area to inspect is their mouth. Leopard wrasses are shipped from the collection site to the wholesaler, and finally to the retailer, in specimen bags that do not contain sand (Lidster, pers com). The result is a fish that is extremely stressed and usually beaten up from its constant unsuccessful attempts to bury itself within the specimen bag. Damage to the mouth is imminent and highly probable. Excessive damage to the mouth will hinder their ability to eat, thus leading to starvation. Other areas to observe are the tail and fins for tears, or the body for scrapes or burns. A simple 2-inch layer of sand inside the shipping bag would eliminate a large percentage of these injuries.

Once the mouth and the remainder of the body have passed visual inspection for damage, pay close attention to the swimming habits of the fish. These fish should be swimming with a purpose: constantly searching the rockwork for food. A healthy Leopard will slowly cruise each rock, closely inspecting each nook and cranny for possible meals. If the fish is pacing the front glass, or swimming in circles, it is best to avoid the fish in favor of one with more normal swimming patterns. On several occasions I have witnessed fish that constantly swim in circles, usually in the same direction each time. In all cases after noticing this behavior, the fish died within 48 hours.

If your candidate has passed all the tests thus far, ask to see it eat. Leopards often don't eat for up to a week after arriving in the retailer's store. However, if it doesn't eat for the retailer, I wouldn't necessarily rule it out just yet. Ask them to feed live foods such as brine shrimp or black worms. Live foods will often initiate a feeding response when frozen/thawed foods will not. A fish that doesn't eat, but still looks good overall, is a possible purchase, if you're willing to take the chance that it will eat for you once moved to your quarantine tank. If it does eat, I would purchase it on the spot. In fact, I would remove it from the retailer as quickly as possible. Often times the retailer's tanks are improperly setup to provide an adequate housing for Leopards. In extreme situations where retailers chemically treat their holding tanks, the Leopards should be removed ASAP. My retailer chemically treats his holding tanks with copper and formulin on a regular basis, and this makes for an extremely poor environment due to the lack of small invertebrates that the Leopard would normally be hunting. Left in these food-barren tanks, usually cramped with many tank mates, most Leopards will not survive, even for one week.

Once you have successfully found a visually healthy appearing fish, it is time to get it into its quarantine tank. However, special note should be made that this quarantine tank is drastically different from any other such tank you have used in the past. For optimum results this tank should be set up long before the purchase of the Leopard, giving the micro-crustaceans a chance to multiply. The set up should mimic a typical reef tank, having a 3-inch or deeper sandbed and plenty of live rock. Water from the eventual permanent home of the Leopard should be used to perform water changes in the temporary quarantine tank. You will not be treating the Leopard for most pathogens. Generally, I have found them to be very resistant to illness. It is advisable, however, to treat them for intestinal worms. A positive identification of intestinal worms would require a microscopic examination of its fecal matter, or the liver, intestines, or abdominal cavity of deceased fish. Obviously, this is beyond the capabilities of most hobbyists, so it is best to presume the fish has intestinal worms. This presumption is not without merit, however, as an estimated 75 - 85% of imported marine fish have intestinal worms (Bassleer, 1996). The induced stress from poor shipping practices exacerbates this ailment, likely leading to the death of the animal. Normal signs indicative of internal worm infestations are: weight loss while a healthy appetite is present, scraping or flashing against rockwork or sand, and finally, loss of appetite occurring just prior to death. Treatment for internal worms must be administered to a fish that is eating. Live foods are best, as this allows "gut loading," which is the practice of feeding live foods additional vitamins or medicines just prior to feeding. If live foods are unavailable, the next best option is to use freeze-dried foods. The dry food will soak up and retain a majority of the medicine. Piperazine is a good first choice for treatment. Add 250mg per 100g of food each day for a period of 10 days. Praziquantel or levamisole can be used as a second choice, with the same dosage and time frame. Niclosamide can also be used at 500mg per 100g of food for 10 days (Bassleer, 1996).

If your Leopard has made it this far, it is a safe bet that you will enjoy its presence for years to come. It wouldn't be a bad idea to allow the Leopard a chance to settle in comfortably for up to 4 or 6 weeks in the quarantine tank. During this time try to note where the Leopard retires each night. The fish will develop a favorite spot, and will return to it each and every night. When it comes time to capture the fish, doing so at night will minimize stress. Place a large net or specimen container over the sandbed where you believe the fish to be sleeping. I prefer a net because the hard plastic of the specimen container may injure the mouth of a Leopard wrasse in a panic flight out of the sand. Using the handle from another net, slowly and carefully probe underneath the sand. If you have the correct site, 1 of 2 things will happen. Either the fish will leave the sandbed attempting to swim away from the perceived danger, landing directly in your net, or it will literally "swim" under the sand. This will be easy to recognize, as the sandbed will ripple with the movement of the fish, and it will be easy to follow. Move the net accordingly. Eventually, the fish will leave the sandbed, and with a bit of luck will land in the net. Once captured, move the fish into your show tank. I recommend that you use a specimen container at this point so the fish is not removed from water. If you've been using water from the new home to perform water changes on the quarantine tank, an acclimation period is not necessary. When placed into new surroundings, expect the Leopard to flee by quickly diving into the sandbed. It may remain there for 2 days or longer. On one occasion, I had a M. meleagris that remained in the sand for 7 days after bringing it home! Later, after the addition of an Halichoeresornatissimus, the M. meleagris remained in the sand for 12 days. Both times the fish resurfaced with no apparent damage, though its appetite was rather large for a few days.

A proper setting for a Leopard wrasse is a tank of at least 4 feet in length. Macropharyngodon species are active swimmers, and always on the go. The more room provided to them, the more they will comfortable they will feel with their surroundings. A fair amount of healthy live rock should be present, allowing the Leopard something to hunt and forage from. It would also be advisable to have an active, established refugium in place and feeding the main tank to help replenish the micro-crustaceans as they are consumed. The smaller the tank, the more important this becomes. A minimum of 2" of sand should be present, more being better, which will allow the fish to dive into and sleep for the night. Speaking of sleeping, you can expect your Leopard to go to sleep, and wake up, at nearly the same time each day. Their internal clock is amazingly predictable. At first, this might be a problem, as they are still functioning on Indo-Pacific time. I know from personal experience that as the days and weeks pass, the fish will slowly readjust their schedule to more closely resemble the photoperiod of the tank. The last consideration is tank mates. Due to their peaceful nature, Leopards do not mix well with aggressive fish. At the time of introduction, the Leopard should be the most aggressive fish in the tank. If fast swimming or aggressive fishes are planned in the future, a cover for the aquarium would be a wise investment.

Fish

Will
Co-Exist

May
Co-Exist

Will Not
Co-Exist

Notes

Angels, Dwarf

X

   

Excellent choice.

Angels, Large

 

X

 

Some angels may be too active or aggressive.

Anthias

X

   

Excellent choice.

Assessors

X

   

Excellent choice.

Basses

X

   

Excellent choice.

Batfish

X

   

Excellent choice.

Blennies

X

   

Excellent choice.

Boxfishes

X

   

Excellent choice.

Butterflies

X

   

Excellent choice.

Cardinals

X

   

Excellent choice.

Catfish

 

X

 

Catfish grow increasingly aggressive as they grow larger.

Comet

X

   

Excellent choice.

Cowfish

X

   

Excellent choice.

Damsels

 

X

 

Some Damsels are too aggressive for Leopards.

Dottybacks

X

   

Excellent choice.

Dragonets

X

   

Excellent choice.

Drums

X

   

Excellent choice.

Eels

 

X

 

Some eels may consume Leopards.

Filefish

X

   

Excellent choice.

Frogfish

   

X

Best avoided.

Goatfish

X

   

Excellent choice

Gobies

X

   

Excellent choice.

Grammas

X

   

Excellent choice.

Groupers

   

X

Best avoided.

Hamlets

X

   

Excellent choice.

Hawkfish

 

X

 

Some Hawkfish may attack Leopards.

Jawfish

X

   

Excellent choice.

Lionfish

 

X

 

Some Lionfish grow too large and may consume smaller Leopards.

Parrotfish

 

X

 

Often too large and active to share a tank with Leopards.

Pineapple Fish

X

   

Excellent choice.

Pipefish

   

X

Pipefish require their own tank.

Puffers

   

X

Best avoided.

Rabbitfish

X

   

Excellent choice.

Sand Perches

 

X

 

Sand Perches can be aggressive, especially as they grow larger.

Scorpionfish

   

X

Scorpionfish are best left to species tanks.

Seahorses

   

X

Seahorses require their own tank.

Snappers

   

X

Aggressive feeder; will intimidate Leopards.

Soapfishes

   

X

Best avoided.

Soldierfish

 

X

 

Should do well except for the occasional bully.

Spinecheeks

X

   

Excellent choice.

Squirrelfish

 

X

 

Should do well except for the occasional bully.

Surgeonfish

X

   

Excellent choice.

Sweetlips

 

X

 

Some Sweetlips get huge, a potential problem for the Leopards.

Tilefish

 

X

 

Some Tilefish can behave aggressively.

Toadfish

   

X

Best avoided.

Triggerfish

   

X

Best avoided.

Waspfish

   

X

Best avoided.

Wrasses

 

X

 

Some wrasses will co-exist, while others will not.

Note: While many of the fish listed are good tank mates for Macropharyngodon sp., you should research each fish individually before adding it to your aquarium. Some of the fish mentioned are better left in the ocean or for advanced aquarists.

Food for the Leopard wrasses should consist mostly of shelled crustaceans, and will supplement the food the Leopards find naturally growing in the aquarium. Mysids, krill, and plankton, either frozen or freeze-dried, are excellent first choices. The freeze-dried foods allow for additional vitamins to be easily added, as they readily absorb liquids. My Leopard wrasses have also eagerly devoured fish roe purchased from a local oriental food store. Vitamin-enriched brine shrimp is another option. Lastly, mine have been trained to eat nori (dried algae) thanks to my surgeonfish, and are regularly observed chewing coralline algae. I don't know if the fish gain nutritional value from these algae, but it is possible the Leopards use the coralline algae to help sharpen and/or grind down their large pharyngeal teeth.

Macropharyngodon species may be mixed in the same aquarium, provided only one male Macropharyngodon is present. Mixing females is not a problem if the aquarium can support them in both overall size and micro-fauna. In fact, I have kept M. meleagris, M. geoffroyi, and M. negrosensis in the same aquarium with absolutely no problems. Multiple fish of the same species are also no problem, once again provided there is only one male. Captive spawning of Leopard wrasses has not occurred. Due to the intricacies of the mating ritual, spawning would be impossible in all but the largest of home aquariums. The terminal males repeatedly dive to the sandbed where the females congregate. Gravid females execute a series of rapid, vertical jumps followed by hovering in the middle of the water column. The male then joins the female and, side-by-side, the pair rocket up two or three feet, snap apart and simultaneously release gametes (DeLoach, 1999).

Meet the Species

The most common Leopard wrasse in the trade today is M. meleagris. Also called the Guinea Fowl wrasse, it is found in the West-central Pacific. The terminal males can reach up to 5 inches in length. The males were once classified as a completely different species, M. pardalis, until it was discovered that their particular color pattern was actually the terminal male coloration of M. meleagris. This mistake can be understood since the male looks completely different than the female. Once the color change begins to take place, the fish sheds the female's silver background and black spots for the male colors of turquoise/teal background with mauve spots. Unlike most other Leopards, the Guinea Fowl wrasse will spend the majority of its life alone, rarely in pairs. They are not naturally found in harems, though a group of females will peacefully co-exist in an aquarium quite well.

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Macropharyngodon meleagris

The Divided wrasse, or M. bipartitus, is found in the Indian Ocean. It is also called the Vermiculate or Splendid Leopard wrasse. The Red Sea species has a slightly different coloration and thus earned itself a sub-species classification, known as M. bipartitus marisrubri. Once again, the male has a completely different coloration. The silverfish-blue spots of the female become yellowish-gold stripes and swirls on the male. The background changes to green. The male also gains a black spot underneath the caudal fin. Full-grown adults will measure 4 inches.

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Macropharyngodon bipartitus

Macrophyngodon negrosensis, commonly called the Yellowspotted or Black Leopard wrasse in the hobby, are not regularly available, though they may be found on occasion. They range from the Philippines to Samoa and the Great Barrier Reef. Males and females are similarly colored, though a distinct difference can be noted. Both have a primarily black background. The female is spotted throughout, with the spots getting closer and more numerous higher on the back. Color can range from yellow to white. Males lose the spots and gain gold-ish/green tips on the scales and stripes on the face. They can reach 5 inches in length.

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A M. negrosensis in the initial color phase in a home aquarium.
Summary

These eye-catching fish, commonly known as Leopard wrasses, are difficult fish, which are not meant for every aquarium. If the necessary precautions are taken and the tank is setup accordingly, you will have a much better chance at success and will be rewarded with many years of observing their unique behavior. By ignoring the precautions, the fish stand little chance at long-term survival.


If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

References

Baensch, H.A. 1994. Macropharyngodon. Baensch Marine Atlas, Volume 1. Microcosm. Shelburne, VT. pp. 881 - 887.

Bassleer, G. 1996. Internal Worm Infections. Diseases in Marine Aquarium Fish. Bassleer Biofish, Statiostr. Westmeerbeek, Belgium. Pp. 72 - 75.

Burgess, W.E., et al. 1991. Dr. Burgess's Mini-Atlas of Marine Aquarium Fishes MinEdition. T.F.H. Publications. Neptune City, NJ. pp. 467 - 468.

DeLoach, N. 1999. Wrasses. Reef Fish Behavior. New World Publications. Jacksonville, Fl. pp. 322 - 343.

Lieske, E. and Myers, R. 1996. Coral Reef Fishes. Princeton University Press. Princeton pp. 101.

Michael, S. W. 1999. Wrasses. Marine Fishes: 500 + Essential-To-Know Aquarium Species. Microcosm.Shelburne, VT. pp. 302 - 303.

Michael, S. W. 1998. Family Labridae. Reef Fishes Volume 1. Microcosm. Shelburne, VT. pp. 126 - 128.

Randall, J.E., 1978. A revision of the Indo-Pacific labrid fish genus Macropharyngodon, with descriptions of five new species. Bull. Mar. Sci. 28(4):742-770.

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The Leopards of the Reef by Henry C. Schultz III - Reefkeeping.com