Animal of the Month
December 2016

Name: Parrotfish
Scientific Name: Scaridae

Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciformes
Suborder: Labroidei
Family: Scaridae
Number of Species: 60-80
Size: 1-4 feet long
Weight: N/A

Colorful body, beak-like palet
Color(s): Varies wildly
Behavior: Diurnal, travels in schools. Some species wrap themselves in a mucous cocoon at night. Sometimes females change their gender to male.
Preferred Habitat: Tropical coral reefs
Range: Found in reefs across the world
Diet: Algae, coral
Lifespan: Up to seven years in the wild

Status: Currently Not Evaluated

Do you love to stretch out on warm, sandy beaches? If so, be sure to thank parrotfish! Parrotfish are found in coral reefs across the planet, and they help to create the beaches we enjoy. Parrotfish are essential for bioerosion in the ocean, and they have several characteristics that make them unique denizens of our planet.

There are between sixty to eighty species of Parrotfish. They come in all different colors, including blue, red, yellow, brown, gray and others. Their colors are so wildly different that sometimes males, females and juveniles of the same species look totally different! The largest species of parrotfish is the humphead parrotfish, which can grow to about four feet long. The smallest species is the green parrotfish, which grows to about half a foot long.

Parrotfish are omnivores. Their preferred food is algae that grows on rocks and coral. Using their powerful beaks, parrotfish snap up the algae along with coral or rock. The materials are all ground up with their molars in their throats, creating a fine white sand. The sand is then deposited in their poop as the fish swim by. This piling of sediment is responsible for creating as much as 85% of reef sand, which helps to form islands. Parrotfish actually contribute to the very formation of islands! This goes to show that humans are not the only animals with the capability of manipulating whole environments.

Some species of parrotfish use special organs in their heads to wrap themselves in cocoons of mucus at night. Scientists think that they do this to protect themselves from predators. Like many species of fish, parrotfish lay eggs. Young females will lay eggs and males will fertilize them. Many females, however, will spontaneously change from female to male after laying eggs. It is thought that males are scarce when the eggs are laid, and thus the parrotfish switch genders to ensure that the eggs will be fertilized.

Parrotfish as a whole are not currently evaluated by the IUCN. However, some species of parrotfish have been threatened due to overfishing. In addition, parrotfish are intimately tied to corals, and coral reefs are dying due to pollution and warming waters. Parrotfish help to keep reefs healthy by curbing algae growth, and they support island formation with the sand that they generate. Some species of parrotfish are also threatened due to the destruction of mangrove trees, which help to clean the ocean. Without parrotfish, reef ecosystems would be further stressed, and beautiful sandy beaches would become less common. The process of island formation in the ocean would also be greatly affected without parrotfish to drive it forward.

Fortunately, the battle to save coral reefs is not a lost one. There is still time to preserve the reefs, and the parrotfish that call them home!

To learn more about parrotfish and the corals they inhabit, check out these awesome links:

National Geographic, “To Save Coral Reefs, Start With Parrotfish”—This article highlights the realities of declining reefs, and how protecting parrotfish is critical to helping them.

Scientific American, “Parrot Fish Poop Makes Beautiful Beaches.”—A brief video explaining how parrotfish create whole islands…with their poop.

ARKive, Rainbow Parrotfish Page—Learn about the Rainbow Parrotfish, the largest herbivorous fish in the Atlantic!

NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, Home Page—A campaign through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, dedicated to preserving coral reefs through education and research.

Coral Reef Alliance, Home Page—Another organization working to protect and preserve corals, operating in Hawai’i, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico and Fiji.


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