Humphead Wrasse

Humphead wrasse. Photo © Rob Myers
Humphead wrasse. Photo © Rob Myers

Cheilinus undulatus

These large, colorful reef fish have been reported up to 7 feet, but normally average about 2 feet long. They are protogynous hermaphrodites, so sometimes a female will become a male, and turn from a female’s rusty red-orange colors to a male’s bright blue-green colors. Older males will have a more prominent hump on their foreheads than younger fish. They live in and around reefs, eating marine invertebrates including some poisonous prey.

Order – Perciformes
Family – Labridae
Genus – Cheilinus
Species – undulatus

Common Names

English language common names are humphead wrasse, blue-tooth groper, double-headed maori wrasse, double-headed parrot-fish, giant humphead wrasse, giant maori wrasse, giant wrasse, humhead wrasse, hump-headed wrasse, humphead, humphead maori wrasse, humphead wrasse, Maori wrasse, Napoleon maori-wrasse, Napoleon wrasse, and Napoleonfish. Other common names include balaki (Ilokano), bankilan (Tagalog), batu (Malay), bayan (Malay), bayan-bayan (Malay), bebarat (Malay), bechok (Malay), bodião napoleão (Portuguese), bungat (Tagalog), buntogon (Cebuano), chavarichoran (Malayam), draudrau (Fijian), gamategawaliya (Misima-Paneati), hipus (Bikol), ikan becok (Malay), ipus-ipus (Davawenyo), isdang bato (Tagalog), jalow (Somali), jééwè (Numee), kakatoi vareur (French), kakatua (Makassarese), kerrapu napoleon (Malay), labayan (Cebuano), lalafi (Samoan), langkani (Maranao/Samal/Tao Sug), lingkar kangar (Malay), lubayan (Waray-waray), lupaen (Tagbanwa Calamian), maa hulhumbu landaa (Maldivian), malakea (Samoan), mam (Tobian), mamel (Palauan), mameng (Chavacano), mamiliporos (Carolinian), mamin (Malay), maming (Tagalog), maml (Palauan), mammi (Maranao/Samal/Tao Sug), mamming (Maranao/Samal/Tao Sug), mara (Tahitian), maraia (Tuamotuan), maringyan (Bikol), megane-mochino-uo (Japanese), mem (Carolinian), mul-mul (Davawenyo), máám (Carolinian), nami (Jawe), Napoleon (Malay), Napoleonfisk (Swedish), Napoleonsfisk (Danish), Napoleón (Spanish), Napoléon (French), ngimer (Palauan), nippwáyik (Carolinian), nuri (Malay), nuri nuri (Malay), papae (Tahitian), parahirahi (Tahitian), pono-ngombe (Swahili), ponomchriwi (Swahili), ramkop-lipvis (Afrikaans), riesenlippfisch (German), tagafa (Samoan), talia (Gela), tamago (Visayan), tamure (Tuamotuan), tangafa (Tongan), tapiro (Tuamotuan), tarungan (agutaynen), tatika (Tuamotuan), te karon (Kirabati), te tangafu (Tuvaluan), tetarap (Malay), thokka (Malayalam), thânyima (Fwâi), tul-ungan (Mapun), varivoce (Fijian), and verde verde (Ilokano).

Importance to Humans

Humphead wrasses are considered "Endangered" by the IUCN. Photo © Klaus Jost
Humphead wrasses are considered “Endangered” by the IUCN. Photo © Klaus Jost

Considered of minor commercial interest, the humphead wrasse is considered a gamefish.

Traditionally the flesh of this fish has been highly regarded for human consumption; it is often found alive in the fish markets of Hong Kong fetching prices up to $100 US per kilogram. Eating this fish has resulted in cases of ciguatera poisoning. The humphead wrasse is a species commonly exhibited in public aquarium facilities and is considered of importance to eco-tourism in areas frequented by divers. This has resulted in the promotion of conservation due to the high tourism value of protecting this species.


Although this species is long-lived, it has a very low reproductive rate resulting in a decline in numbers due to a number of threats. These threats include the live reef food fish trade, spearfishing, destructive fishing techniques (cyanide/dynamite), habitat loss and degredation, marine aquarium trade, and unregulated fisheries. In response to declining populations of the humphead wrasse, some countries have began to take action. In 2003, Australia prohibited the take and possession of this species other than for some educational uses and public display. Indonesia currently allows fishing of the humphead wrasse for research, mariculture, and limited artisanal fishing. Other countries including the Philippines, Maldives, and Palau have enacted some protective regulations as well. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service considers it a species of concern although it is data deficient to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

> Check the status of the humphead wrasse at the IUCN website.

Formerly listed as “Vulnerable” by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the humphead wrasse has since been upgraded to “Endangered” status. The IUCN is a global union of states, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in a partnership that assesses the conservation status of species. The IUCN’s Grouper and Wrasse Species Specialist Group is collecting data and raising awareness of this species. The humphead wrasse is also listed in Appendix II of CITES.

Geographical Distribution

World distribution map for the humphead wrasse
World distribution map for the humphead wrasse

The humphead wrasse resides in the Indo-Pacific region from the Red Sea to South Africa and to the Tuamoto Islands, north to the Ryukyu Islands, and south to New Caledonia.


This member of the Labridae family inhabits steep outer reef slops, channel slopes, and lagoon reefs to depths of 330 feet (100 m). It is usually solitary however it may be observed in male-female pairs or in social groups of one male, two-seven smaller adults, and several juveniles. Occupying limited home ranges, the adults swim across the reefs during the day, resting at night in caves and under coral ledges. Juveniles select branching hard and soft corals and seagrass beds at settlement. They are often observed among the thickets of living staghorn coorals (Acropora spp.) and on deeper reef flats.


Humphead wrasse. Photo © Rob Myers
Humphead wrasse. Photo © Rob Myers

Distinctive Features
One of the largest reef fishes in the world, the humphead wrasse is made even more imposing by the presence of a prominent hump located on the forehead from which it earns its various common names. This hump forms above the eyes, becomes even more prominent as the fish ages. Adults have relatively deep bodies, thick fleshy lips, and a rounded caudal fin.

Humphead wrasses have distinct coloration with males ranging from a bright electric blue to green, purplish-blue or dull blue-green. Females are red-orange above to a pale or white ventral surface. As in numerous species of wrasses, some of the female humphead wrasses reverse sex to become males while other fish may start life as males. In the larger males, the hump on the head becomes more prominent and takes on a brilliant blue coloration. In addition, the squiggly patterns on the face become more intense in color. Consequently, it is these markings that are said to resemble facial tattoos of the Maoris, resulting in the common name Maori wrasse.

Female humphead wrasses are reddish-orange while the males are blue to green in color. Photo © George Ryschkewitsch
Female humphead wrasses are reddish-orange while the males are blue to green in color. Photo © George Ryschkewitsch

These large reef fish has tough teeth fused into a parrot-like beak, enabling them to consume hard-shelled species including mollusks, echinoderms and crustaceans. The pharyngeal teeth, a second set of dentition located inside the fish’s throat, enable the fish to crush prey items. Divers who observe a school of humphead wrasses feeing on a reef have been known to hear the noise and see the clouds of dust from the demolition of hard corals by this species.

Size, Age, and Growth
The maximum reported length of the humphead wrasse is 90 inches (229 cm) total length (TL), however it is more commonly observed at lengths of 24 inches (60.0 cm) TL. Females rarely exceed about 3 feet (1 m) in length. The maximum published weight is pounds 421 pounds (191.0 kg) and maximum reported age is 32 years. It is believed that this species reaches sexual maturity at 5-7 years of age and lengths of at least 16-24 inches (40-60 cm) TL; and are extremely long-lived to at least 30 years.

Humphead wrasses feed on urchins including the crown-of-thorns (Acanthaster planci). Photo © Becky Kelly
Humphead wrasses feed on urchins including the crown-of-thorns (Acanthaster planci). Photo © Becky Kelly

Food Habits
Prey items comprising the humpback wrasse’s diet include mollusks, sea urchins, crustaceans, and fishes. Some of these prey items are toxic such as sea hares, boxfishes, and crown-of-thorns starfish. It is also known to feed on sharp-fanged moray eels.Reproduction
The humpback wrasse is a protogynous hermaphrodite, with some females becoming male at approximately 9 years of age. Factors controlling this sex change timing are as of yet undetermined. Spawning occurs at certain times of the year with adults forming spawning aggregations at the down-current end of the reef. Pairs spawn together as a part of the aggregation which may number up to 100 individuals. In particular, these aggregations form daily after high tide at certain locations along the seaward edge of the barrier reef off Palau. Spawning in this location has been documented for most months of the year and probably occurs throughout the year with some seasonal and lunar variation possible. During courtship, the terminal male (also referred to as “supermale”) points his anal fin and folds his caudal fin down and dorsal fin against the body while swimming a few feet off the bottom substrate. When the females are ready to spawn, they rise up as the posturing male swims past with the pari releasing gametes in a calm manner near the surface. The planktonic eggs are released and fertilized in the water column. Upon hatching, the larvae settle out of the water and onto suitable substrate.

Potential predators of the humphead wrasse are larger reef fish including sharks.


The humphead wrasse was originally described as Cheilinus undulatus by Rüppell in 1835. Synonyms referring to this species in past scientific literature include the misspelling Chelinus undulatus Rüppell 1835. The species name undulatus is derived from Latin, meaning “waved” or “wavy”. It is the largest member of the Labridae family.

Prepared by: Cathleen Bester