Humphead Wrasse (the Amazing Gender-Shifting Fish)

The humphead wrasse is an impressive fish species in the Coral Triangle, which encompasses parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Also known as the Napoleon wrasse, Mōri wrasse, Napoleon fish, and Napoleonfish, this species is often referred to as one of the “elephants of the coral reef” due to its large size and robust appearance.

They are known for their amazing ability to change genders throughout their lifetime. This large and long-lived species is found in the Indo-Pacific region near coral reefs and can grow up to 2 meters in length!

Humphead Wrasse (the Amazing Gender-Shifting Fish)

What is Humphead Wrasse?

The Humphead Wrasse, scientifically known as Cheilinus undulatus, is a large wrasse found in tropical and subtropical coral reef ecosystems. This unique fish has an unmistakable humplike forehead, and its colors range from greenish gray to dark gray with pink or yellowish tinges on its head. Humphead Wrasse are some of the largest living coral reef fishes, growing up to 2 meters in length and weighing up to 180 kg! They are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning they change sex from female to male during their lifetime.

Humphead wrasses can be found throughout coral reefs in many regions worldwide, including the Red Sea, East Africa, Japan’s Ogasawara Islands, the Ryukyu Islands, New Caledonia, Maldives, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia.

What does Humphead Wrasse look like?

Despite their small size, these fish are among the most beautiful in the world.

Like other reef fish, they have beautiful colors and striped patterns on their bodies. This distinguishing feature is what makes them different.


The humphead wrasse’s body ranges from greenish-brown to bright blue and yellow. It has prominent white stripes down its sides, giving it a distinctive look.


The appearance of the humphead wrasse has captivated marine life enthusiasts worldwide. With its iconic hump and beady eyes, this robust fish looks like it comes straight out of a fairytale. Its shape and size vary greatly depending on age and gender, making it an interesting fish to observe.

Their head has a distinctive hump, which gives them their name, while their body can range from greenish-gray to yellow or orange. They have thick lips and two sets of protruding canine teeth, which they use for scraping algae off rocks and coral reefs. The tail fin is rounded, or lunate, when mature, adding another striking feature to these amazing creatures.


The Humphead wrasse is an impressive creature, reaching remarkable sizes. It’s a large fish that can reach up to 1 meter in length and weigh up to 100 kilograms. The female of the species is usually larger than the males, but not by a significant amount.

 Males typically measure two meters long and weigh up to 200 kilograms, while some individuals have been reported as being over 2.25 meters long.

Life Span

Humphead wrasses can live up to 30 years! Males typically reach their full size after 5–6 years of life, while females require 9–10 years. After they reach maturity, they grow significantly larger than other fish in their group and take on new colors and patterns!

Male and Female Fish

The male and female fish of this species have similar distinct features, though there are also some differences. The males are typically larger than the females, boasting an impressive average length of up to 6 feet. They also feature a large hump on the forehead, which gives them their name. This distinctive hump varies in size for each fish and can help identify them in the wild.

Humphead Wrasse (the Amazing Gender-Shifting Fish)

Where does Humphead Wrasse Live?

These colorful fish can be found in coral reefs, lagoons, and sheltered coastlines. The Humphead Wrasse prefers water temperatures between 7.8°C and 8.4°C but also inhabits areas with a wider range of temperatures, from 6°C to 29°C.

They are wide-ranging animals documented as far north as Japan and southward into Australia’s Great Barrier Reef waters. As they live in shallow coastal regions, these majestic creatures are easily observed by scuba divers and snorkelers who share the same reef habitats inhabited by them.

Is Humphead Wrasse Going Extinct?

The growing demand for them as a food source has led to illegal fishing practices decimating their population. Although steps are being taken to protect this species, more than current efforts may be needed to prevent its disappearance from our oceans.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared the species “vulnerable” on its Red List of Threatened Species due to overfishing and the destruction of coral habitats. The humphead wrasse is highly sought after by commercial anglers, who use it for culinary dishes such as sashimi, curries, and soup stocks.

Why is Humphead Wrasse Going Extinct?

Their populations are rapidly declining for a variety of reasons. Among them are the following:


This alarming trend can largely be attributed to overfishing practices across many parts of their range. Not only are they targeted by commercial fishing vessels, but they are also caught as part of illegal fishing operations and other destructive activities that damage coral reefs where they live.

Heavy harvesting

Humphead wrasses are slow-growing species that can live up to 30 years or longer in the wild. This makes them particularly vulnerable to overfishing since it takes them a significant amount of time to reach reproductive maturity and replenish their numbers.

Marine pollution

The decline in the population of this species can be attributed to various factors, one of them being marine pollution. The increase in chemical runoff into our oceans has caused an influx of pollutants that have proven damaging to delicate ecosystems like coral reefs and habitats like those inhabited by the Humphead Wrasse.

Climate change

Climate change presents an especially grave threat to humphead wrasse populations. Rising ocean temperatures are causing coral bleaching, which destroys reefs and reduces the habitat for fish. Furthermore, climate change leads to rising sea levels that can disrupt breeding grounds or displace juvenile wrasse into new habitats where they may not thrive.

Finally, acidification of the oceans due to increased CO2 levels affects their food sources and makes them more susceptible to diseases or infections that can wipe out entire populations within weeks.

Catching juveniles for the aquarium trade

The demand for this species has grown considerably over time as it is considered an attractive addition to home aquariums due to its bright colors and size. Fishermen have taken advantage of this by catching juvenile Humphead Wrasse from their natural habitats, with little regard for sustainability or population control measures. Moreover, adults are also being targeted for food which further contributes to their rapid decline in numbers.

Habitat loss and destruction

Habitat degradation from human activities such as industrial fishing, coastal development, and pollution has caused significant disruption to coral reefs, an essential habitat for the Humphead Wrasse.

Humphead Wrasse (the Amazing Gender-Shifting Fish)

How many Humphead Wrasses are there?

Scientists have been trying for years to count their population numbers accurately, but they still need concrete data on the number of humphead wrasses left in our oceans. Unfortunately, there are no exact population numbers for this species.

 Due to intense overfishing and habitat destruction, their populations have declined dramatically over recent decades. The IUCN Red List estimates that the global population has decreased by at least 30% since 1975. As a result, they have been classified as vulnerable on the list since 1996 and, more recently, as endangered in certain parts of their range, such as East Africa.

What is Being done to save the Humphead Wrasse?

Several countries are taking specific measures to save this species.


 The Australian government has been working hard to protect this endangered species, implementing various conservation initiatives.

One key way the Australian government has worked to protect the Humphead Wrasse is by creating protected areas for them to live safely. In 2018, Australia established a sanctuary for this species at Raine Island in Queensland, which covers 60 square kilometers of reef area and has prohibited fishing within its boundaries.

This area provides an important refuge where the fish can safely reproduce and recover their numbers from threats like trawling or dynamite fishing, which are common practices outside the protected zone.

Borneo Island

In 2018, the Malaysian government declared an eight-mile stretch of sea off the east coast of Borneo Island as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), with additional restrictions on fishing and other activities that could damage its habitats. In addition to this MPA, various NGOs are raising awareness about sustainable fishing practices and working with local fishermen to reduce their impact on the Humphead Wrasse population.

The state of Hawaii

One of these conservation efforts can be found in the state of Hawaii. The Hawaiian Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has proposed new regulations for its aquarium fishery trade that will significantly reduce demand for humphead wrasse.

Specifically, DLNR’s plan calls for banning exports of any wild-caught specimens and requiring special licensing or permits from all aquarium operators. These measures would ensure that only sustainably sourced fish can enter the aquarium trade market.

The Maldives

In The Maldives, the government has declared many areas as protected zones for Humphead Wrasses, restricting any fishing activities within these areas. This helps to ensure that there are safe havens for them to breed without interruption.

Additionally, non-profit organizations such as SeaLife Trust have researched these creatures’ biology and behavior to develop better conservation techniques.


In China, the government has been helping coordinate conservation efforts by monitoring marine areas and implementing laws that ban any illegal harvesting or trading of humphead wrasse products.


They have proposed gear restrictions such as limiting trawling in areas where wrasse live or prohibiting any net larger than 1 meter wide to reduce accidental captures. Additionally, they are working with local communities to foster more sustainable practices when harvesting marine life from their reef habitats.


Taiwan has implemented an annual catch limit of 50 Humphead Wrasse per year since 2005. It also requires that all recreational fishermen obtain a permit before they can target this species, which curbs illegal catches by monitoring where and when they are taken.

Humphead Wrasse Behavior

Humphead Wrasses live among coral reefs, providing shelter for several other species of fish and invertebrates that inhabit the same area. This makes them an “umbrella” species whose presence ensures the survival of many other reef creatures.

They feed mainly on hard-shelled animals such as clams, mussels, and crabs, which they crush using specialized teeth located at the back of their throat.

Humphead Wrasses have been seen to be very aggressive towards both adult members of their own and other species. In particular, they are known for their aggressive approach to defending their territory. This includes chasing down intruders and even attacking if necessary.

This species exhibits two distinct hunting techniques: ambushing prey from dark hiding spots or scavenging food items from the ocean floor. Its unique teeth can crunch into shells and crush coral to get to their meals, creating a fascinating sight for scuba divers who observe them in the wild. The humphead wrasse also feeds on sea urchins, mollusks, crustaceans, and even small fish when necessary.

What does Humphead Wrasse eat?

The humphead wrasse has an omnivorous diet that consists mainly of invertebrates like crabs, lobsters, snails, and other types of fish. They have powerful jaws and sharp teeth that enable them to easily crack open shells and consume hard-shelled prey.

Their diet also includes benthic algae, sea urchins, mollusks, polychaetes worms, small echinoderms, and octopuses. In addition to these items, they may also take advantage of wounded or dead fish by scavenging off their carcasses if given the opportunity.

Humphead Wrasse Breeding

The Humphead Wrasse has a very long life span, reaching as much as 30 years old. They are also noted for their slow sexual maturation process, which occurs at about 5 to 7 years of age.

During spawning season, male Humphead Wrasse forms large aggregations to attract females. These congregations can consist of up to 100 males and make a loud buzzing noise underwater by vibrating their swim bladders together. The dominant male will then select one female to mate with from the group.

The courting process starts with the male displaying his colors to attract her attention. He will then circle her while releasing pheromones to get her attention and show his interest in mating with her. If she is also interested in him, they will start swimming together until they eventually move into deeper water, where they can lay their eggs together.

Pairs will lay hundreds of eggs at once in spherical masses. Each egg measures approximately 0.65 mm in diameter and is covered with sticky mucus, ensuring they remain together during release into the water column. After being released, the eggs drift away from the reef and eventually hatch within a few days, depending on environmental conditions such as water temperature and salinity.

Protogynous Hermaphriditism

This means the fish can change from female to male during their lifetime. This process of sex reversal allows for an increased number of males in the population, which helps with successful spawning and increases genetic diversity within the species.

Humphead Wrasse typically mates during sunset or sunrise in shallow water up to twenty meters deep, where the female will release her eggs, fertilized by males competing for dominance. While these mating rituals occur annually around November through March, research suggests that climate change could disrupt this pattern creating unfavorable conditions for breeding success.

Importance of Humphead Wrasse

Ecosystem Balance

Humphead Wrasse is an important scavenger that helps to keep coral reefs clean by eating pests such as sea urchins, crabs, mollusks, and other invertebrates that can damage the corals if left unchecked. They also act as predators by consuming small fish and crustaceans, which helps prevent certain species’ overpopulation. This keeps the ecosystem balanced and healthy for all life forms within it.

These large fish are also habitat providers for smaller reef fishes which seek shelter from predators under their bodies or inside their mouths.

As a food Source

The humphead wrasse is highly sought after due to its unique flavor profile and delicate texture, making it a popular seafood choice for many people near coastal areas with access to fish. This species can reach up to 2 meters in length and weigh over 200 kilograms when fully grown, providing plenty of meat for those who choose to eat them.


Sportfishing is an important source of income for many coastal communities in areas where the humphead wrasse can be found. Anglers who visit these areas are often drawn by chance to catch this prized species, which can fetch a handsome price depending on its size and condition. Sportfishing generates much-needed revenue for local businesses, from tackle shops and marinas to hotels and restaurants.

Aquarium Trade

The aquarium trade has long fascinated this species due to its rarity and vibrant colors. Though it was once widely available in the aquarium trade, overfishing has caused it to become increasingly difficult to source in recent years. This has led to an increased demand for this species in the market, resulting in higher prices for those who manage to get their hands on them.

Can you eat Humphead Wrasse?

It’s considered a delicacy and sold for high prices due to its quality. In addition to its delicious flavor, the humphead wrasse is also highly nutritious because of its high protein and low-fat content and its selenium levels. But can you eat it?

The answer is yes! Humphead wrasses are edible and safe to eat when properly handled and prepared. However, since they are so valuable, catching them has been banned in some countries due to their vulnerability to overfishing. Therefore, if you want to enjoy this flavorful fish at home, you should buy it from a reputable source or farm-raised specimen instead of fishing it yourself.

How much is a Humphead Wrasse?

The cost of the fish can vary depending on where it is purchased. Generally speaking, you can expect to pay anywhere from $120 to $250 for one. This price range also depends on the size and age of the wrasse and its overall health condition. The larger and more mature specimens tend to be priced higher than younger or smaller ones.

Is Humphead Wrasse Poisonous?

Although Humphead wrasse is edible and is sometimes consumed by humans, eating this fish poses a negligible risk.

The presence of ciguatera toxin in this fish causes this danger.

 Ciguatera toxins cause ciguatera poisoning and may result in the following symptoms:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • cold allodynia
  • intense burning sensation in the mouth and throat

Those who have eaten the humphead wrasse have reported symptoms including nausea and vomiting, cold allodynia (a painful burning sensation in the mouth and throat), and intense burning sensations throughout the body. This reaction is caused by a toxin found in some parts of the fish’s anatomy that can cause adverse effects on humans if consumed.

Is Humphead Wrasse the Largest Coral Fish in the world?

Scientists have long debated this question, with some claiming that other species, such as Goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara) and Tiger grouper (Mycteroperca Tigris), are equally as large or even larger than the humphead wrasse.

Studies have shown that regardless of which species may be physically bigger, all three species are vulnerable to overfishing due to their size and slow reproductive rate.

Does Humphead Wrasse live in Groups?

In short, yes. Humphead wrasses are known to form social groups composed of males and females – this behavior has been observed in various sites worldwide. The size of these groups typically ranges from five to twenty individuals but can sometimes consist of more than thirty fish. Within a given group, several dominant males and numerous non-dominant ones may inhabit the same area but often remain out of sight.

Related Question

What Kind of Fish is a Humphead Wrasse?

The humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulates) is a large marine fish found in coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific region. It can grow up to 2m in length and has an iconic hump on its forehead. It is usually greenish-brown with yellow or blue stripes and spots, and some have bright blue lips. They are omnivorous, feeding on small invertebrates, algae, and coral polyps.

Is Humphead Wrasse Endangered?

Yes, the Humphead Wrasse is endangered. It is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It has been classified as Critically Endangered in some areas due to overfishing, destruction of its coral reef habitat, and other human activities. Conservation efforts are being taken to help protect this species.

Are Humphead Wrasse Carnivores?

Yes, humphead wrasse is a carnivore. They feed primarily on crustaceans, mollusks, and other fish, although they will also consume algae and coral polyps. They use their large, protrusible mouths to suck prey from the seafloor or coral reefs.

Do Sharks eat Humphead Wrasse?

Yes, sharks do eat humphead wrasse. Sharks are one of the main predators of this species, along with large fish and other marine mammals. Humphead wrasse is also harvested for their meat and fins, which puts them at risk of overfishing. Conservation efforts are necessary to protect this species from further decline.

What is the Size of a Humphead Wrasse?

The humphead wrasse is a large species of fish that can reach up to 2.3 meters in length and weigh 180 kilograms. They are usually found in the Indo-Pacific region, on coral reefs, and near rocky outcroppings.

Do Humphead Wrasses Migrate Long Distances?

No, humphead wrasses do not migrate long distances. They typically remain in the same general area throughout their lives and only have short travel distances to breed or find food. Humphead wrasses are known for their territorial behavior and can become very attached to a particular home range.


In conclusion, the humphead wrasse is a remarkable species that can switch its gender from male to female, providing an extraordinary adaptation for its survival. These fish are vital to the reef ecosystem, and their presence is essential for maintaining a healthy balance.

Their impressive size, vibrant colors, and fascinating gender-shifting ability make them an important part of the ocean’s biodiversity.

Read more:

Similar Posts