What is a Parrotfish?

KD Morgan

Parrotfish are some of the most beautiful and interesting of the reef fish inhabiting tropical island waters around the world. These 1 to 4 feet (30 to 120 centimeters) beauties have bright and vibrant colors ranging from greens, blues, yellows to reds and have many variations of bicolor, spotted, striped and mosaic designs.

Parrotfish feed on seaweed that grows on coral.
Parrotfish feed on seaweed that grows on coral.

Coloration varies from male, female and juvenile. As with many species, the males display the brightest colors while the females maintain a more drab appearance. The parrotfish inhabiting the Greek islands are the only exception, where the females express the brightest colors.

Parrotfish inhabit the waters surround tropical islands throughout the world.
Parrotfish inhabit the waters surround tropical islands throughout the world.

The reason they got the name parrotfish is because of their parrot-like beak, rather than their vibrant parrot-like coloring. Parrotfish teeth fuse into a solid plate that allows them to chomp and crunch sea grass and seaweed. The sound of grinding is audible while they eat.

The seaweed these reef fish eat grows on coral so they ingest much of the coral as well. This accounts for their vibrant coloring. Parrotfish have special teeth in the back of their throat that grinds up the coral, which is digested and released as puffs of white powdery sand.

The seaweed that grows on the coral can block the vital, life giving sun so the parrotfish play an important roll in keeping the coral reefs alive and healthy. In the Caribbean particularly, the parrotfish are preserving the coral from an overgrowth of seaweed.

Parrotfish have a built in protective mechanism that allows them to sleep without being vulnerable to attacking predators. They create and surround themselves with a mucus cocoon that scientists believe masks their scent. Scientists also suspect that this transparent “goo” blocks invading germs and parasites.

There are over 90 known varieties of parrotfish, most with unique characteristics. Many are capable of changing color as they mature. Parrotfish schools travel in harems of females with a dominant male for protection and fertilization. Female parrotfish have the ability to transform themselves into males and if the male is lost, a female parrotfish will change her sex and color to take on the role of dominant male and fertilizing the eggs.

In the continental United States, parrotfish meat is rarely eaten but in other regions of the world, it is often considered a delicacy. In the Polynesian islands, parrotfish were once considered a meal only worthy to be served to a king. In the Caribbean, parrotfish are easily caught and are considered a special delicacy. With the growing dependence on parrotfish to preserve the Caribbean coral reefs, ecologists and statesmen alike are considering putting them under protection.

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