Humphead wrasse

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Humphead wrasse
Humphead wrasse melb aquarium.jpg
Breeding male humphead wrasse in the Melbourne Aquarium
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciformes
Family: Labridae
Genus: Cheilinus
Species: C. undulatus
Binomial name
Cheilinus undulatus
Rüppell, 1835
  • Cheilinus mertensii Valenciennes, 1840
  • Cheilinus godeffroyi Günther, 1872
  • Cheilinus rostratus Cartier, 1874

The humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus, is a species of wrasse mainly found on coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also known as the Māori wrasse, Napoleon wrasse, Napoleon fish, Napoleonfish, so mei 蘇眉 (Cantonese), mameng (Filipino), and merer in the Pohnpeian language of the Caroline Islands.


The humphead wrasses can be located with in the east coast of Africa and Red sea as well as in the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. There are different ranges in which juvenile and adult humphead wrasses are found. Juveniles are usually found in shallow sandy ranges that are bordering coral reef waters, while adults are mostly found in offshore and deeper areas of the coral reefs, typically in outer-reef slopes and channels but can also be found in lagoons. Humphead wrasses are found in small groups or larger combinations within their habitat.[2][3]


The humphead wrasse is the largest living member of the Labridae family. Males are typically larger than females and are capable of reaching lengths of up to 2 meters from tip to tail and weighing up to 180 kg, but the average length is generally a little less than 1 meter. Females rarely grow larger than one meter in length. This species of fish can be easily identified by its large size, thick lips, two black lines behind its eyes, and the hump that appears on the forehead of larger adults. The color of the humphead wrasse can vary between a dull blue-green to more vibrant shades of green and purplish-blue. This particular reef fish prefers to live singly but adults are occasionally observed moving in small groups.[4][5][6]


Napoleon fish diving in the Red Sea

The humphead wrasse is long-lived, but has a very slow breeding rate. Individuals become sexually mature at four to six years, and females are known to live for around 50 years, whereas males live a slightly shorter 45 years. Humphead wrasses are protogynous hermaphrodites, with some members of the population becoming male at about 9 years old The factors that control the timing of sex change are not yet known. Adults move to the down-current end of the reef and form local spawning aggregations (they concentrate to spawn) at certain times of the year.[7] It is speculated that Humphead Wrasse do not travel very far for their spawning aggregations.[8]

The Humphead Wrasse produces pelagic eggs and larvae that ultimately settle on or near coral reef habitats. Eggs are 0.65 mm in diameter and spherical with no pigment.[7]

A humphead wrasse at the water's surface on the Great Barrier Reef


Being very opportunistic predators, the Cheilinus undulatus prey primarily on invertebrates such as mollusks (particularly gastropods and pelecypods), echinoids, crustaceans, annelids) and vertebrates, in the form of fish. Half of echinoids and most pelecypods hide under the sand, leaving scientists to believe one of two options: the humphead wrasses rely on fish excavators like stingrays, or they themselves excavate by ejecting water and nosing around to look for prey. Often, these wrasse, alone with many other Red Sea wrasses, crack sea urchins (echinoids) by carrying them to a rock in their mouths and striking them against a rock by moving their heads in sideways, brisk movements.[9]

Ocean acidification is becoming a very big threat to coral reefs because it is reducing the calcification rate of coral species. These coral species will be pushed beyond what they can handle in terms of growth and survival for decades to come. Due to an increased concentration of atmospheric CO2, the pH of Earth’s oceans are causing this acidification, and therefore decline in reef building activity. Adults are commonly found on steep coral reef slopes, channel slopes, and lagoon reefs in water 3 to 330 ft (1–100 m) deep. From this loss of calcifying coral, this endangered species may someday also lose its home.[10]

This species actively selects branching hard and soft corals and seagrasses at settlement. Juveniles tend to prefer a more cryptic existence in areas of dense branching corals, bushy macro algae, or seagrasses, while larger individuals and adults prefer to occupy limited home ranges in more open habitat on the edges of reefs, channels, and reef passes. The species is most often observed in solitary male-female pairs, or groups of two to seven individuals.[11]


The fish is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red list and in Appendix II of CITES.[12] Species numbers for the humphead wrasse have been declining due to a number of threats, including:

  1. Intensive and species-specific removal in the live reef food fish trade throughout its core range in South-East Asia
  2. Destructive fishing techniques, including bombs and cyanide
  3. Habitat loss and degradation
  4. Local consumption and its value as a delicacy for local and tourists
  5. A developing export market for juvenile humphead wrasse for the marine aquarium trade
  6. Lack of coordinated, consistent national and regional management
  7. Inadequate knowledge about the species
  8. Illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing activities[13]

As noted, one of the causes for population decline is the unsustainable and severe over-fishing within the live reef food fish trade (LRFFT). Sabah (located on Borneo Island) is a major source for humphead wrasse. The fishing industry is specifically important to this state because of its severe poverty rates. The export of this fish out of Sabah has led to an approximate 99% decline in the population in that area. In an effort to protect the species there was a ban placed on the export of the humphead wrasse out of Sabah. However, this does not prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated activities (IUU). The protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is managed in this area by the federal Department of Fisheries Malaysia, Sabah (DOFS) who issue permits to regulate fishing activity. There are two pieces of legislation that serve to protect the species as well. The Fisheries Act 1985 controls the transport of live fish as well as prohibits destructive fishing techniques and the Trade of Endangered Species Act 2008 supports Malaysia’s adoption of CITES.[13]

The humphead wrasse is considered to be an umbrella species. This means that there are many other species that are sympatric with this species that have much smaller ranges. The conservation of the habitat of an umbrella species such as the humphead wrasse would not only benefit this species but also all of the other sympatric species. The concept of an umbrella species can lead to a better understanding of endangered species protection.[14]

The species has historically been fished commercially in northern Australia, but has been protected in Queensland since 2003 and Western Australia since 1998.

In Guangdong Province, southern mainland China, permits are required for the sale of this species; Indonesia allows fishing only for research, mariculture, and licensed artisanal fishing; the Maldives instituted an export ban in 1995; Papua New Guinea prohibits export of fish over 2 ft (65 cm) total length; and Niue has banned all fishing for this species.

The humphead wrasse is a U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service Species of Concern. Species of Concern are those species about which the NMFS, has some concerns regarding status and threats, but for which insufficient information is available to indicate a need to list the species under the Endangered Species Act.

Population Conservation via Genetics[edit]

In 1996, the humphead wrasse became listed as a vulnerable species in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. It was put on this list because in the last decade, humphead wrasse populations were declining rapidly. Because of this fact, it is extremely important to analyze and evaluate the genomes of the humphead wrasse so as to try and determine a way to help keep the species alive.[15]

Since so little is known about the genetic relationships at a geographical scale of the humphead wrasse, thanks to a test utilizing microsatellite loci, (usually DNA markers are used for this specific test, but the humphead wrasse lack such markers,) researchers were able to facilitate population genetic studies in this species.

Of the 15 microsatellite loci used in the test, only 4 of them seem to have a different outcome than the other 11 loci. These 4 microsatellite loci were all prone to null alleles. However, with the presence of these null alleles, the results may have been slightly biased. Or they may be related to a particularity of the C. undulatus which are highly restricted to coral reef habitats.[16]

Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Activities (IUU)[edit]

The Philippines, Indonesia and Sabah Malaysia are the three largest exporters of the humphead wrasse. The fish has one of the highest retail values in Asia, especially if caught alive and it is a delicacy in places like Malaysia. (IUU) activities were identified as the major factor contributing to the failures of conservations efforts. Although the Convention on International Trade and in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has placed a ban on the exportation of the humphead wrasse, there are still many cases of the fish being smuggled across the Malaysian- Philippine border.[13]

Four main factors have led to the persistence of IUU activities:

    1. Lack of capacity: There is a lack in formal procedures and work force numbers that monitor fishing activities and enforce fishing regulations.
    2. Lack of disincentives: Fishers do not have another option that is an encouraging substitute for the humphead wrasse due to its value. Also, punishment for illegal activities are not harsh enough to discourage fishers away from this species.
    3. Inability to determine an accountable individual: There is a long line of people who are involved in the trade of this species making it difficult to trace back to the source. Importers and Consumers, despite their involvement, can not be deemed responsible for the illegal export of the humphead wrasse.
    4. No control over domestic trade: There is a defect in the regulation of the species because domestic catching, possession, and trading of the fish is not restricted. Fishers may illegally source the fish or have intentions to illegally trade it, but if they are within Malaysian waters with the correct permits they cannot be prosecuted.[13]

It was found that the top exports of the humphead wrasse in Malaysia were in Sandakan, Papar, and Tawua. It was also discovered that the buying price of the fish ranged from USD $45.30-$69.43 and the selling proce ranged from USD $60.38-$120.36.[17][18]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Russell, B. (Grouper & Wrasse Specialist Group) 2004. Cheilinus undulatus. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. <>. Downloaded on 02 November 2013.
  3. ^ Tupper, Mark (2007). "Identification of nursery habitats for commercially valuable humphead wrasse Cheilinus undulatus and large groupers (Pisces: Serranidae) in Palau". Marine Ecology Progress Series 332: 189–199. 
  4. ^ Chateau, Wantiez (2007). "Site fidelity and activity patterns of a humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus (Labridae), as determined by acoustic telemetry". Environmental Biology of Fishes (Springer Netherlands). doi:10.1007/s10641-006-9149-6. 
  5. ^ Weng, Pederson, Del Raye, Caselle, Gray (2015). "Umbrella species in marine systems: using the endangered humphead wrasse to conserve coral reefs". Inter-Research Endangered Species Research. 
  6. ^ Sadovy, Kulbicki, Labrosse, Letourneur, Lokani, Donaldson (September 2003). "The Humphead Wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus: synopsis of a threatened and poorly known giant coral reef fish" (PDF). Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries. doi:10.1023/B:RFBF.0000033122.90679.97. 
  7. ^ a b Sadovy, Y et. al. (2003). "Synopsis of a Threatened and Poorly Known Giant Coral Reef Fish". Fish Biology and Fisheries 13 (3): 327–364. 
  8. ^ Chateau, Olivier; Lantiez, Laurent (2007). "Site fidelity and activity patterns of a Humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus (Labridae), as determined by acoustic telemetry". Environmental Biology of Fishes 80 (4): 503–508. 
  9. ^ Randall, J.E et. al. (1978). "Food habits of the giant humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus (Labridae)" (PDF). Environmental Biology of Fishes 3: 235–238. 
  10. ^ Anthony, K.R.N et. al. (2008). "Ocean Acidification causes bleaching and productivity loss in coral reef builders". PNAS 105: 17442–17446. 
  11. ^ Tupper, Mark (2007-03-05). "Identification of nursery habitats for commercially valuable humphead wrasse Cheilinus undulatus and large groupers (Pisces: Serranidae) in Palau". Marine Ecology Progress Series 332: 189–199. doi:10.3354/meps332189. 
  12. ^ Dorenbosch. et. al., M (2006). "Seagrass beds and mangroves as potential nurseries for the threatened Indo-Pacific humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatusand Caribbean rainbow parrotfish, Scarus guacamaia" (PDF). Biological Conservation 129: 277–282. 
  13. ^ a b c d Poh, T. (2012). "Tackling illegal, unregulated, and unreported trade towards Humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) recovery in Sabah, Malaysia". Marine Policy 36 (3): 696–702. 
  14. ^ Weng, K. C et. al. (2015). "Umbrella species in marine systems: using the endangered humpback wrasse to conserve coral reefs". Endangered Species Research 27: 251–263. 
  15. ^ Qi, X. Z et. al. (2013). “Complete mitochondrial genome sequence of the humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulates”. <>
  16. ^ Hu, J et. al. (2013). “Development and characterization of microsatellite loci in a threatened marine fish, Cheilinus undulatus (humphead wrasse)” <>
  17. ^ Chen, J.N.S; Justin, S.R. (2009). "Regulating the humphead wrasse (cheilinus undulatus) trade in Sabah, Malaysia". Ambio. 
  18. ^ Fenner, Douglas (2014-07-15). "Fishing down the largest coral reef fish species". Marine Pollution Bulletin 84 (1–2): 9–16. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2014.04.049. 

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