Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon): Ultimate Guide to Types & Care


Leopard Wrasses are saltwater fish in the genus Macropharyngodon. They are colorful fish that live in tropical climates in the Indo-Pacific region. They prefer to live in coral reef environments and can be found from the Red Sea to the waters of Hawaii. They are difficult to keep in captivity since they require a high level of care.

Leopard Wrasses only grow to be 4 to 6 inches, but they need room to swim. They require a 100-gallon tank.

There are 12 known different species of Leopard Wrasses:

  • Macropharyngodon bipartitus
  • Macropharyngodon choati
  • Macropharyngodon cyanoguttatus
  • Macropharyngodon geoffroy
  • Macropharyngodon kuiteri
  • Macropharyngodon marisrubri
  • Macropharyngodon meleagris
  • Macropharyngodon
  • Macropharyngodon negrosensis
  • Macropharyngodon ornatus
  • Macropharyngodon pakoko
  • Macropharyngodon vivienae

Colors will vary across all the different species of Leopard Wrasses. However, all species of Leopard Wrasses exhibit sexual dichromatism. This means males and females are different colors and makes them easy to distinguish from each other.

Leopard Wrasses are also protogynous hermaphrodites and have the potential to change color phases three times in their life. All Leopard Wrasses are born female and they will have female coloration when they are in their juvenile phase. Females become sexually mature during their Initial Phase and their colors will brighten. Then during the terminal phase, the most dominant female becomes the male in a harem. These may also be called secondary males.

Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon)
Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon)

Leopard Wrasses like to burrow into the sand, so it is important to have a fine grain of rounded sand. They live on a natural schedule that you can count on. Leopard Wrasses burrow themselves into the sand at the same time every night to go to sleep and they get up at the same time every morning. They even act as some humans do before a morning caffeine jolt by roaming around the tank aimlessly for 10 minutes or so before fully waking up.

Leopard Wrasses got their name for two reasons: they have a spotted pattern over their scales, and they stalk their prey. They take their time, moving in long, slow motions when targeting their prey. Leopard Wrasses are peaceful, but they are carnivorous creatures. They need to be fed small meals 4 to 5 times a day. Since they are carnivorous, it is important to get tank mates they won’t eat.

Speaking of being carnivorous, Leopard Wrasses have prominent canine teeth. They also have large teeth on both sides of their upper jaw. This makes them perfect for cleaning out any unwanted pests from the tank. They feed on mollusks and hunt down the snakes that go after Tridacna snails.

Leopard Wrasses can live for up to 10 years in the wild. Their life expectancy drops dramatically when kept in captivity with most fish not making it more than 5 years. These fish are easily stressed and many of them never even make it out of the pet store. Being transported across multiple time zones in a plastic bag without consistent feedings is difficult for these fish and many of them do not bounce back.

Leopard Wrasse Care

Leopard Wrasses need expert-level care. They are picky eaters who need to eat often and they get stressed very easily. In the wild, most Leopard Wrasse species will be found in pairs in coral reefs throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Leopard Wrasses have a smaller stomach than most other fish. They would preferably have 4 or 5 small meals a day. They do not do well on less food than that. Leopard Wrasses are picky eaters. They will eat more if they are given live food. This is pricer than buying frozen food, but feeding the fish live food could be the difference between having the fish for a couple of months or having the fish for years.

Leopard Wrasses are not usually interested in seaweed or nori when it is hung in the tank, but they will swim after the pieces other fish leave behind.

Leopard Wrasse Tank Setup

Leopard Wrasses need a 100-gallon tank or larger to swim and explore. These fish may not get larger than 6 inches, but they enjoy a large environment of reefs and sand. Attempting to put a Leopard Wrasse in a smaller-sized tank could cause them unnecessary stress. Since they have already gone through high levels of stress from the fish store, it is important to introduce them to an aquarium that is prepared for them.

Males almost always ship poorly since they do not enjoy being cooped up in small places. The smaller, initial-phase fish adapt better.

The water in the tank needs to be between 72 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit, 8-8.4 pH, and salinity of 1.020-1.025.

Leopard Wrasses need a sand bed at least two inches deep so they can burrow in the sand to sleep. They need a fine grain of rounded sand to protect their scales from damage. Sugar-fine aragonite sand is highly recommended for this use. Filling the bottom of the tank with the substrate is also recommended.

Leopard Wrasses burrow into the sand to sleep and they wake up at the same time every day. Their burrowing plays into their eating habits too. They spend their days foraging and hunting for food so there needs to be a minimum of 100 pounds of live rock in the tank. The rocks provide places to explore, feed, and hide.

A proper lid is required to keep Leopard Wrasses. It is also advisable to lower the water level a couple of inches below the cover. Leopard Wrasses have been known to launch themselves out of the tank when they are startled. Since these fish are small enough to fit through narrow openings, a proper lid is necessary to prevent accidental escapes.   

Are Leopard Wrasse reef safe?

Yes, Leopard Wrasses are reef-safe fish. They like to hunt around the live rock and dig into the sand, but they have no interest in coral reefs. They are careful around all rock structures to protect their scales.

Do Leopard Wrasse Bury Themselves?

Yes, Leopard Wrasses bury themselves to sleep, to acclimate to a new climate, or to hide from predators.

“Why is my Leopard Wrasse hiding?”

Leopard Wrasse fish will usually bury themselves in the sand when they are put into a new tank. They may not be afraid. This is how they adjust their circadian rhythm after their transportation. Leopard Wrasse can stay buried in the sand for several days.

Do not stir the sand or dig up the Leopard Wrasse. The fish will come up when they are ready. 

Are Leopard Wrasse bred in captivity?

No, Leopard Wrasses are not bred in captivity. Spawning events in captivity have been recorded, but none of these events have been successful.

Leopard Wrasse Male or Female

Male and female Leopard Wrasse have several visible differences. They have a different color palette and are different sizes.

The males are usually orange or red with spots of blues and greens. Black Leopard Wrasses have a dark background and Choat’s Wrasses have a silver underlay, making them the exceptions to this rule. Males are bigger in size and much more colorful than females. The males are also shyer and are likely to hide from divers in the wild.

Females are primarily white with brown or black spots. The males and females look so different that scientists thought they were two separate species. Leopard Wrasses are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning they start life as sexually undifferentiated juveniles, move on to being fully functioning females, and then become males.

Leopard Wrasse Disease

Leopard Wrasses do not have many reported diseases in captivity. Since they bury themselves in the sand, they rarely develop external parasites. The sand prevents the parasites from attaching to the fish as they sleep.

Leopard Wrasse Tank Mates

Leopard Wrasse establishes routines within the tank. They sleep on a schedule and go back to the same foraging locations. They will do a type of dance when they feel threatened. This strange swimming pattern usually confuses whatever the perceived threat is long enough for the Leopard Wrasse to hide.

Leopard Wrasses and stress do not mix. Big, aggressive fish species such as Frogfish, Groupers, Puffers, Scorpionfish, Soapfish, Toadfish, Triggerfish, and Waspfish are a no-go.

Anything that eats a Copepod is also not a good match for the Leopard Wrasse. Leopard wrasses are fast and eat copepods quickly leaving nothing for others, like dragonets, to eat and they often end up starving.

The Leopard Wrasse should not harm any cleaner shrimp, feather dusters, or small crabs. The best tank mates for Leopard Wrasses are Banggai Cardinalfish, Blue Tang, Copperband Butterflyfish, Flame Angelfish, Gem Tang, Midas Blenny, Powder Brown Tang, Sailfin Tang, Starry Blenny, and Yellow Tang.

Leopard Wrasse Types

Black Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon negrosensis)

Black Leopard, or Yellow-Spotted Wrasses, are black in color with black anal and pelvic fins. The caudal fin is pale. The males will have scales edged in pale green and females will have small, pale spots. They live in the Indo-Pacific from the Andaman Sea to Samoa. They live in the lagoon and seaward reefs that have areas of mixed sand and coral. They can be found in pairs or small, loose groups, normally close to the bottom.

Ornate Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon ornatus)

Ornate Leopard Wrasses, also known as False Leopard, are found in the Indo-Pacific from Sri Lanka to Western Australia. They can be found on their own or in small groups. They prefer to swim about 100 feet below the surface in seaward reefs or lagoons of mixed sand and coral.

Jewel Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon lapillus)

Jewel Leopard Wrasses are gorgeous fish originating from the Indian Ocean. They require fine sand to bury themselves in for sleep. This fish also likes to hunt for small mollusks and crustaceans, so Jewel Leopard Wrasses need an established aquarium.

Blue Star Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon bipartitus)

Blue Star Leopard Wrasses, also known as Divided Leopard Wrasse, Vermiculate Leopard Wrasse, and Peacock Leopard Wrasse, originate from the Western Indian Ocean. They are similar to the last two wrasses and like to hang out about 100 feet deep in lagoons and sheltered seaweed reefs. Their diet consists mostly of shelled protozoa and small snails.

Potters Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon geoffroy)

Geoffroy’s Wrasses, also known as Geoffroy’s wrasse, are found around the Hawaiian Islands. They are not a popular fish in the aquarium trade, but they do occasionally make their way into it. They feed on mostly mollusks and live in areas of mixed sand, rubble, and coral on seaward reefs. They can grow to be just over 5 inches.

Kuiters Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon kuiteri)

Kuiter’s Leopard Wrasses, also known as Black leopard wrasse, share many characteristics with the larger tropical wrasse species but are considerably smaller. They have a different teeth arrangement from the other Leopard Wrasse species.

The Kuiter’s Leopard Wrasse will change color based on gender and age. They begin life as a female with orange-red background color, bluish spots, a small black spot just behind the eye, and the opercular spot dons. When the Kuiter’s Leopard Wrasse develops into an adult male, they become mostly orange in color. The spot behind the eye will disappear and a green and orange circle develops around the black opercular spot.

Red Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon choati)

Red Leopard, also known as Choats Wrasse, are rare and expensive. They are very small in size and will only reach up to 3 inches. They are orange or red in color and are only found in east Australia along the Australian Coast in southern parts of the Great Barrier Reef and northern New South Wales.

Adult Choat’s Wrasses will have a white body with red or orange spots and thick red striping on the face with a patch of yellow bordered in a bluish-green color on their gill covers. Juveniles have a semi-transparent white body with a few orange patches. Males have a vibrant-colored faces with green and orange alternating stripes. They also have yellow lips.

Blue-Spotted Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon cyanoguttatus)

Blue-Spotted Leopard Wrasses are usually spotted in small groups or pairs. They are only known to be found in the Western Indian Ocean. They can be found from South Africa to Mauritius.

Red Sea Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon marisrubri)

The Red Sea Leopard Wrasse is confined to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. Red Sea Leopard Wrasses are brighter than the leopard wrasses from the Western Indian Ocean, but the biggest difference is the dorsal fin.

Many leopard wrasses have unusually short dorsal fins, but the Red Sea Leopard Wrasse has a more pronounced dorsal fin. Whereas most leopard wrasses have a dorsal fin with a relatively flat top, the Red Sea Leopard Wrasse’s dorsal fin does not. They have developed a spiny portion to their dorsal fin. Instead of having dorsal fin spines that are mostly even, Red Sea Leopard Wrasses have dorsal fins that stairstep their way up.

Blackspotted Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon meleagris)

Blackspotted Leopard Wrasses are the most common species in this genus to be in the aquarium industry. This fish can be called Blackspotted Leopard Wrasse, Leopard Wrasse, or Guinea Fowl Wrasse. It is found in the Indian-Pacific Oceans from Cocos Islands to the Western Pacific.

Moyer’s Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon moyeri)

Moyer’s Leopard Wrasses have not hit the mainstream aquarium trade. They are a rare, lesser-known, species of leopard wrasse. They are native to Japan and can also be found in Taiwan. The Moyer’s Leopard Wrasse is different from other leopard wrasses by having a body without any spots.

Pakoko Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon pakoko)

Pakoko Leopard Wrasses are found in the South Pacific Ocean and were first discovered in the Marquesas Islands. Pakoko Leopard Wrasses are similar to the Blackspotted Leopard Wrasse, but they are different in color. Males of both species are greenish and they both have a spot on their ear. The common leopard wrasse has a small black spot with a yellow accent while the Pakoko Leopard Wrasse has a larger spot that is bordered in iridescent blue.

Madagascar Leopard Wrasse (Macropharyngodon vivienae)

Madagascar Leopard Wrasses are beautiful fish that is hardly seen in the aquarium trade. They have a distinct preopercular spot on their cheek and are more elongated than other leopard wrasses. Madagascar Leopard Wrasses are pearlescent pink or whitish instead of having the traditional spotted appearance.

Madagascar Leopard Wrasses are thought to be endemic to Madagascar and the East African coast, but they have been collected from Kenya too. They spend their time in waters ranging from 65 to 130 feet deep.

Conclusion

Leopard Wrasses are small, beautiful fish that need a lot of room to swim and an expert level of attention. They are carnivores who need to be fed 4 to 5 times a day. They need sand to burrow into for sleeping, hiding, and acclimating to a new environment. Burrowing in the sand also keeps many parasites from attaching to its scales.

There are currently 12 known species of leopard wrasses. They all have the same basic needs of a tropical saltwater climate with a lot of food to forage and hunt for. They begin life as neither male nor female and could be both in their lifetime.

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