Photo: The intricately patterned head of a bicolor parrot fish

The beautifully colored parrot fish is known to change its shape, color, and even gender during its life.

Photograph by Tim Laman

Map

Map: Parrot fish range

Parrot Fish Range

Fast Facts

Type:
Fish
Diet:
Omnivore
Average life span in the wild:
Up to 7 years
Size:
1 to 4 ft (30 to 120 cm)
Group name:
School
Did you know?
Some male parrot fish maintain harems of females. If the dominant male dies, one of the females will change gender and color and become the dominant male.
Size relative to a tea cup:
Illustration: Parrot fish compared with tea cup

It's hard to decide which of the colorful parrot fish's many unique characteristics is most remarkable.

There’s its diet, which consists primarily of algae extracted from chunks of coral ripped from a reef. The coral is pulverized with grinding teeth in the fishes’ throats in order to get to the algae-filled polyps inside. Much of the sand in the parrot fish's range is actually the ground-up, undigested coral they excrete.

There's its gender, which they can change repeatedly throughout their lives, and their coloration and patterns, which are a classification nightmare, varying greatly, even among the males, females, and juveniles of the same species.

Finally, there are the pajamas. Every night, certain species of parrot fish envelope themselves in a transparent cocoon made of mucous secreted from an organ on their head. Scientists think the cocoon masks their scent, making them harder for nocturnal predators, like moray eels, to find.

Close relatives of the wrasse, parrot fish are abundant in and around the tropical reefs of all the world’s oceans. There are about 80 identified species, ranging in size from less than 1 to 4 feet (30 to 120 centimeters) in length.

Their meat is rarely consumed in the United States, but is a delicacy in many other parts of the world. In Polynesia, it is served raw and was once considered "royal food," only eaten by the king.

Fish Features

  • Photo: Close-up of a man with a giant catfish

    Megafishes Photos

    View photos of the world's largest freshwater fish fighting for survival, as pollution, overfishing, and construction threaten the rivers and lakes they call home.

  • Photo: A blue-and-green sea anemone

    All About the Ocean

    Explore and discover the world's oceans like never before with facts, photos, news, video, and more!

  • Photo: Great white shark and fish

    Great White Shark Pictures

    See close-ups of great white sharks lurking, hunting, and attacking. Download desktop wallpapers of these amazing, often misunderstood predators.

  • Photo: Swedish net that captures numbers of eels

    Eels Photo Gallery

    The freshwater eel is one of the few fishes to spawn in the ocean and spend its adulthood in lakes, rivers, and estuaries.

Animals

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

From the Magazine

  1. Photo: Two adult preen, Ireland

    Gannets Pictures

    Champion divers but clumsy landers, doting parents but hostile neighbors—northern gannets abound in contradictions.

  2. Photo: Silent Ural owl

    Estonia's Ural Owls

    Photographer Sven Začek provides an intimate view of this large raptor.