Parrotfish – A Complete Guide (Care, Diet, Facts)

As one of the most interesting species of fish you can find, Parrotfish are known for their beautiful appearance, species diversity, and the critical role they play in maintaining the health of coral reefs and areas alike.

Named after their abundance of teeth that come down to form a beak-like look resembled by a Parrot, Parrotfish use their teeth to scrape off macro algae and seaweed substances from corals and rocks, and to eat the coral itself.

Originating in the Indo-Pacific waters, still having a healthy and diverse community there, these fish can also be found in subtropical and tropical areas of the Caribbean Sea and western Atlantic Ocean, depending on the species.

As a keystone species, the protection of Parrotfish is critical in the sustainability of coral reefs. Touched upon and analyzed in this article will be the Parrotfish’s overview, their importance, their conservation impact, different species, and their amazing reproductive habits.


Parrotfish Overview; Behavior, Teeth, Location and More

With over 95 species of Parrotfish in the world’s waters, it is clear that this fish has been successful due to its reproductive and survival habits over time.

In the Indo-Pacfic waters, Parrotfish have their highest population, as well as their largest abundance of species diversity. In addition, some species can be found in the Caribbean and Sea and western Atlantic Ocean.

In these areas, you will find Parrotfish near coral reefs and rocky areas, as well as areas with beds of seagrass and seaweed.

The most interesting they are known for, that in relation to their name, is the dental structure they possess. Parrotfish have an abundance of teeth, stacked on top of one another in rows on the external side of their jaws, that come down at the mouth to form a beak-like look, one that resembles a Parrot beak.

With these teeth, Parrotfish are able to scrape off and eat the algae that grows on the surfaces of corals and rocky substances. Some species of Parrotfish prefer to eat seagrass that lies on the ground level of waters they roam. Certain species also eat the hard coral itself, with or without the algae.

In addition to the teeth along their jaws, Parrotfish possess pharyngeal teeth; teeth located in the back of their mouth, used for further grinding down tough sediment and hard minerals. These teeth are often possessed by fish who lack much frontal teeth, but this is not the case for the Parrotfish, as they possess both sets, and very capable ones at the least.

Over time, as their teeth become worn down from constant scraping, they consistently grow new ones in replacement, never skipping a beat. Parrotfish who primarily feed on algae off of coral have teeth that are fused together, in addition.

Due to this ability to scrape off and consume massive amounts of algae from corals and rocks, Parrotfish, perhaps inadvertently, play a crucial role in maintaining the health of coral reefs and areas alike in the world’s oceans. This will be touched upon more in a later section.

One species of Parrotfish, the green humphead, is known for its contribution huge in the creation of sand, making almost 200 lbs per year, per fish. This fish grinds down hard corals and crystalline algae, exerting it as fine sediment and sand material. This ends up in the surrounding aquatic biomes, and on the shore along coastlines.

The average size of a given Parrotfish is around 12-20 inches on average, but some species can reach up to 1 meter in length. The green humphead can reach up to around 1.3 meters, or 4.3 feet.

Species of Parrotfish + Their Differences

In the Parrotfish genus are various amounts of species. The genus includes Hipposcarus fish, Scarus fish, Chlorus fish and more. Different species of Parrotfish may have some biological differences, but many are alike, and display similar signs of behavior and appearance.

When taking Parrotfish into consideration, there are mainly two lineages in which all Parrotfish species fall under. One of these would be the coral reef and rocky area dwelling Parrotfish, who scrape algae off of corals for food, or eat the coral itself. The other would be the seagrass dwelling Parrotfish, who typically tend to eat loose seagrass and seaweed at the bottom levels of the water they are swimming in.

Some examples of Parrotfish you would find in coral reefs would be the Arabian Parrotfish, the Chameleon Parrotfish and the Green Humphead Parrotfish.

In contrast, some species of Parrotfish that you would find in seagrass abundant areas would be the Japanese Parrotfish, the Carolines Parrotfish and the Yellowbar Parrotfish.

Members of the groups who roam coral reef areas have stronger teeth and jaws, as opposed to their seagrass-dwelling counterparts. The stronger teeth is more appropriate for them, helping to

easily remove algae and consume the nutrients they need. Seagrass-dwelling Parrotfish do not have teeth that are fused together, either.

Interestingly enough, Parrotfish species who fall under the Scarus and Hipposcarus genus have less edge-like beaks, and don’t leave scarring or damage the corals in which they feed off of.

Coral scarring from Parrotfish activity can cause problems for future growth, but luckily, many of these species have teeth that are strong enough to get what they need, without permanently damaging their food source.

An amazing defensive tactic evolved over time, some species of Parrotfish, such as the Queen Parrotfish, can create a mucus cocoon in which they sleep in at night, able to hide their scent and create a new one that deters predators. This cocoon can also help warn them if trouble is approaching, giving them the extra edge to dart away when needed.

It is also possible that this cocoon contains antioxidant properties, helping to repair some bodily damage that the fish may have experienced recently.

Some species of Parrotfish have very interesting, and perhaps miraculous, methods of reproduction and breeding. In some groups, there are no males that are born, but only females that can turn into a male under the right circumstances, such as the dominant male dying. Females that turn into males are known as secondary males.

Known as a harem, these fish tend to roam in large groups containing one dominant male, with the rest consisting of females. When the dominant male dies, the dominant female will turn male, and the juvenile with the most dominant attitude will become the dominant male.

This method of reproduction has helped keep abundant populations of Parrotfish roaming the waters for a long time.

In all, there are almost 100 different species of Parrotfish, each just as beautiful as the next. For such an important species, we are lucky to be able to have so many different types that roam the waters.

The Importance of Parrotfish

As a herbivore, Parrotfish spend the majority of their day scraping off and eating the algae that grows on coral and rocky substances in the waters that they roam.

Unaware of it themselves, this activity, and a few others, makes Parrotfish a keystone species; one that affects life around it by altering the ecosystem in a way that is beneficial for other forms of life and themselves.

When an abundance of algae grows on corals, especially in coral reefs, corals will die off at an alarming rate. The algae takes away the corals life support, and sucks up much of the oxygen in the surrounding water, making it uninhabitable for many species that had lived there. Leading to coral bleaching, this is an environmental disaster that has led to the destruction of many coral reefs in the world’s oceans.

This is where Parrotfish come in. With their ability to remove mass amounts of algae with their teeth, they give coral reefs the ability to live and thrive, making them more sustainable and beneficial to the forms of life that depend on it.

Coral reefs are considered home and are essential to the daily feeding and activity cycles of many different forms of life, who either feed off of it directly, use it as shelter, or feed on the organisms that live in it. In addition, coral reefs act as regulators for the amount of carbon dioxide present in oceans.

A healthy population of Parrotfish in a coral reef area is directly correlated to a healthy coral reef, which will be talked about further in the next section.

Conservational Impact of Parrotfish

Over the stretch of the past half decade, human activity and other factors have put the health of ecosystems around the globe at risk. One of the biggest highlights of environmental concern happens to lie in coral reefs, especially those in the Caribbean.

When it comes to the health of these coral reefs, overfishing is the biggest issue, as it can affect much more than just the species being overfished.

In the Caribbean, overfishing of Parrotfish has led to the downfall and algal-covering of its coral reefs. With less Parrotfish in the waters, the rate at which algae will grow will be too much for other organisms to keep up, and before they know it, they will be forced to relocate due to lack of habitat, food, and oxygen in the water.

There are other organisms that keep coral clean from algae, but Parrotfish are perhaps the most abundant, and the most capable at performing this action.

Since the 1970’s, over half of the Caribbean’s coral reefs have declined, and most have been taken over by algae since the mid-1990’s.

The absence of healthy populations of Parrotfish in coral reefs can hardly go unnoticed. Looking at coral reef areas in the Caribbean such as Bermuda and Bonaire where there are still healthy and diverse populations of Parrotfish, you will find a direct correlation to a healthier coral reef environmental system.

In these areas, using practices such as spearfishing and fish-trapping on Parrotfish are illegal. These rules and regulations allow for the sustainable growth of Parrotfish populations, while bringing justice to any who decide to harm Parrotfish.

The protection of Parrotfish, and our coral reefs, are very important for our future. Coral reefs act as a major player in the functioning of many aquatic processes.

Perhaps one of the most important processes coral reefs play a role in is the maintenance of carbon dioxide present in the ocean’s waters. Wrapped around the coral is a limestone shell that becomes formed in the oceans waters due to its natural share in the carbon dioxide process.

The limestone is able to hold much carbon dioxide for extended periods of time. With the destruction of coral in massive amounts due to algal blooms and coral bleaching, more carbon dioxide will be present in the waters. This will make areas uninhabitable for many species, as well as kill off their food supplies.

As shown by regulations put in place in Bermuda and Bonaire, we need a nationalized set of regulations that will protect Parrotfish as a whole, helping to keep populations healthy and sustained for a long period of time. The health of our coral reefs depend on it.

Parrotfish as an Aquarium Pet?

After reading through previous sections, it may be obvious that trying to keep Parrotfish as a home aquarium pet may not be your best idea.

As an important keystone species who have experienced a decline in populations due to overfishing, it is very important that these fish are left alone to reproduce and thrive on their own.

When in captivity, Parrotfish can experience a drastic reduction in life expectancy. This can be due to multiple factors, such as stress, inadequate diet and inadequate habitat environment.

Parrotfish are highly susceptible to stress, and the stress can lead to disease, and a breakdown of their immune system.

With a very specific diet, hard to replicate in a home aquarium, it is very unlikely that you will be able to provide them with the diet and nutrients they need in order to grow in a healthy manner.

Parrotfish are crucial players in maintaining the health of coral reefs. Due to this, we should be leaving them to do what they always have; keep coral reefs alive by consuming the excess algae that grows on them.

Parrotfish; Now You Know!

By now, it is clear that Parrotfish are, without a doubt, a very unique kind of fish. With the help of their amazing teeth, they are able to keep the health of coral reefs sustainable. A longer-living coral reef will mean more life for any organisms who surround and depend on it.

With the protection of Parrotfish, we can stand to see a reduction in the amount of decimated coral reefs. As shown, coral reefs with high Parrotfish populations are proven to be healthier.

By educating others on the topic, initiating new regulations, and dismissing any form of Parrotfish ownership, we can help Parrotfish populations grow back to sustainable numbers, ultimately helping ourselves and the health of the ocean’s waters.

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