Australian Leopard-wrasse Quarantine Technique

By on Feb 02, 2013

Macropharygodon-choati-1-RBWMClass:                         Actinopterygii
Order:                         Perciformes
Family:                        Labridae
Genus:                        Macropharyngodon
Species:                      choati, Randall, John E.  1978
Common Names:       Choati Leopard-wrasse, Australian Leopard-wrasse

Of all the Leopard Wrasses one can acquire for their reef aquarium Macropharyngodon choati is by far the most captivating of them all, yet one of the most difficult to acclimate successfully to a captive lifestyle.

The Australian Leopard-wrasse is difficult to attain — simply — because of their low survival rates in captivity and the difficulties shippers encounter during the shipping process.  Shop owners are discouraged by the negative feedback they receive from shippers, wholesalers, and hobbyist that were not successful keeping this fish in captive care.  With that said, they would stop placing orders of this magnificent little creature.  The genus Macropharyngodon in general should only be kept by the advanced aquarist, in well aged aquariums and is not recommended for the beginner.

Macropharyngodon choati enticed me with its beauty many years ago.  As a consequence, on six different occasions the challenge to keep these wonderful little wrasses was met with disappointment.  Therefore, other Macropharyngodons had to satisfy my pallet.  At one time or another I kept M. bipartitus, M. geoffroyi, M. kuiteri, M. meleagris, and M. ornatus these fish were maintained long term with great success and minimal effort.

Top left, Macropharyngodon kuiteri, top right, Macropharyngodon meleagris.Bottom left, Macropharyngodon geoffroyi, bottom right, Macropharyngodon ornatus.

Top left, Macropharyngodon kuiteri, top right, Macropharyngodon meleagris.
Bottom left, Macropharyngodon geoffroyi, bottom right, Macropharyngodon ornatus.

The American Marinelife Dealers Association (AMDA) provides a list of fish on a graded scale from one through five.  Graded scale level number one is intended for beginners, two for the intermediate skilled aquarist, three for reef aquariums, four is recommended for those with advanced skills, and five is designated as fish requirements are unknown.  According to AMDA the M. choati wrasse has a grade scale of four, and rightfully so advising those interested to consider carefully as this is one of the most difficult fish to maintain.

Macropharyngodon bipartitus terminal male.

Macropharyngodon bipartitus terminal male.

Collecting practices have change dramatically through the years, which has benefited this species greatly.  In years past many of the fish collected on site were placed in boats ill equipped to cargo live stock for long distances, but today especially in Australia boats are custom design for this purpose.  These boats can travel long distances for days at a time without sacrificing the post-harvest condition of their newly captured critters.

M. choati is commonly referred to as the Australian Leopard-wrasse.  As the name implies this fish is exported from Australia.  They frequently inhabit coastal to inner reefs, lagoons or sheltered reefs, where there’s a presents of algae growth and slopes of deep rubble drop-offs where sand is present.  Its distribution is fairly wide and can be located from the northern Great Barrier Reef, Queensland south to the central coast of New South Wales.  They can be found at depths of less than one meter to over 27 meters (3 to 91 feet).

Young newly imported Macropharyngodon choati after six weeks in quarantine.

Young newly imported Macropharyngodon choati after six weeks in quarantine.

As the name Macropharyngodon implies, this genus has larger than normal pharyngeal teeth.  Distinctive for its single large molariform tooth of the lower pharyngeal plate (flanked by 1 to 3 small blunt conical teeth), two pairs of large canine teeth anteriorly in upper jaw, the second pair recurved and a large canine at the corner of the mouth.

Australian Leopard-wrasses have a laterally elongated body with a compressed cross section.  It has a single lateral line with a series of scales, twenty-seven in all.  Wrasses in general have a continuous dorsal fin (not notched).  On it’s dorsal fin there are nine spines and eleven soft-rays.  The first few spines of the dorsal fin on juvenile choati wrasses may reveal a small black spot.  The anal fin has three spines and eleven soft-rays.  The pectoral fin on the other hand has no spines and thirteen soft-rays.  Each of its ventral fins has one spine and four soft-rays.  M. choati reaches a maximum length of five inches, with four inches on average.

The coloration on this fish is quite unique, with no two fish having the same blotchy pattern.  This fish has a white body with small to large reddish orange blotches and a black spot on the operculum.  That black spot is like the Mood Ring of the 1960s and 70s, as it can change colors from black to dark blue and sometimes even dark green, this depends on their mood at the time.  There is a yellow marking on the top half of its black spot and a small yellow streak above the eye.  Some have yellow streaks on their cheeks and/or yellow colored lips.

Most leopard-wrasses are sexually dimorphic creatures but this species is not like the rest in its genus.  The coloration of the juveniles and the females are similar, with nearly transparent or colored blotched fins and terminal males can be distinguished from the females by the color arrangement on the anal fin.  The anal fin on the male has a consecutive color pattern with rows of white and orange, while the female has orange blotches on a white background in no particular pattern.  In addition to similar appearances Macropharyngodon are protogynous monandric hermaphrodites, which means — all individuals begin life as females and some will eventually transform into a fully functional terminal male.

Top female bottom male, notice the difference of the anal fins.

Top female bottom male, notice the difference of the anal fins.

The captive environment best suited for Leopard wrasses are mature, well established reef aquariums and are not suited for Marine fish only aquariums.  They require an environment that emulates their natural habitat best and allows them to graze for macro and micro invertebrate fauna naturally.  A bare bottom reef aquarium is not a suitable environment for these fish — simply put they are diurnal (opposite of nocturnal) creatures that seek refuge in the sand come night fall.  A sandy bottom is essential for the health and long term success.

A large amount of research was done concerning the care and husbandry of these fish.  All researched material advocated the same process of acclimation.  Researched material recommended that we “place them in a tank with live rock and sand, to make them feel at home”.  Whenever that technique was utilized, whether in quarantine or place directly into the main system the consequence would be unchanged, after a couple of weeks they would simply vanish.  Had to start thinking out of the box!

On my first trip back from the Philippines I went through some serious jet lag (I’m leading to something).  The only way to combat jet lag was to maintain active and stay awake for most of the day.  Jet lag happens to be a big problem for most fish from the Indo-pacific and Australia.  The internal clock of a fish would have them waking up at night and going to sleep during the day.  To correct piscine jet lag we must first alter their internal clock.

With piscine jet lag in mind I contacted Kevin Kohen from Drs. Foster and Smith’s LiveAquaria department.  I informed him about a theory I had with regards to the jet lag hypothesis and that I would like to experiment with a new concept in quarantine.  Kevin, felt that the fish remaining in inventory may have been compromised, based on my theory and time in captivity.   We both agreed to wait for a new shipment of wrasses to arrive.

I received a pair of Leopard wrasses, which were delivered to me two days after entering the country.  They arrived at my front doorstep at 11:30 a.m. and I proceeded on acclimating them using the float method.  Upon completion of the acclimation process I caught them in a small container and release them into a 30-gallon quarantine system.  The lights were kept off to the quarantine system for the remainder of the day.  In addition, the fish room was kept in complete darkness, which is where the quarantine system was kept (my fish room was located in the basement).  The process to alter their internal clock now begins.

UV Ouarantine System

This is the quarantine system used for these wrasses. Water from the sump is pumped through a UV sterilizer and drains through another UV sterilizer back to the sump. Image from The Coral Reef Aquarium.

In the morning I had the lights programmed to ignite at 11:30 a.m.  The quarantine system was pieced together with no live rock and sand (not recommended long term).  With no place to hide, the wrasses had to stay up all day.  There were times they seem very lethargic, and appeared as if death was imminent (signs of piscine jet lag).  But by the third day — their behavioral pattern had been modified — during the day they would not attempt to hide.  Half an hour before the lights would shut down completely, they would make attempts to bury themselves — our nights have now become their nights.  The photoperiod in the quarantine system emulated the one in the main system.  The lights for both the main and quarantine systems was design to come on at 11:30 a.m. and shut down at 11:30 p.m.

Once the symptoms of piscine jet lag had been corrected, live sand from the main display was added to the quarantine system for the wrasses comfort.

From the start these Leopard wrasses were very healthy specimens and health is a contributing factor with this process.  They were large wrasses about four inches long with a good amount of fat on them.  Their first feedings consisted of fresh water dipped live brine shrimp gut loaded with Selcon (dipped for two minutes) and live black worms.  This feeding regimen continued for a week.  The fish were fed four to five times a day on average.  By the end of the first week these wrasses were greedily taking food and following me around the tank.  On day eight at the start of the second week, I introduced them to frozen foods.  I waited until it was almost the end of the day to feed — this made them anxious and hungry.

At first, they would spit out the frozen food, but toward the end, there were no scraps of food remaining.  The next day feeding went back to its regular schedule of four to five feedings a day.  This time they were fed solely frozen foods.  At the beginning of week three I incorporated Aquatronics Pipzine (Piperazine citrate) with their meal, which can be used as a food additive.  Mixing ½ a capsule of Pipzine with three cubes of frozen food would aid in deworming and will also aid in stimulating their appetite.  This treatment continued for five days.  In addition Garlic Elixir was introduced with their food as separate feedings.  Alternating the feeding with Pipzine (three times a day) and Garlic Elixir (twice a day) was instrumental in conditioning them for a captive life style.

After spending six weeks in quarantine, the male became a little aggressive toward the female.  He would raise his three dorsal spines and display them before he would begin his chase.  He wouldn’t harm her but would pursuit her endlessly.  The fact was he was courting her, but she was not ready for his advances.  A large plastic container aid in removing her from quarantine and placing her into the main system, this was executed before the digital timers turned on the lights to the main display.  For the first half hour her behavior was a little erratic – shortly after the lights turned on and she started too settled in nicely.  At feeding time she intermingled with all the other fish, and got her share of food.

The female took residence in the main system for two weeks before the male was removed from quarantine.  In just two short weeks the female out grow the male and she displayed her dominance toward him upon his arrival.  It did not take long before the male had regained his dominance over the female and became ruler of his kingdom.

The pair was healthy and active for about four years before my sudden move to south Florida.  At which time they did not react well to the sudden change and travel.  The pair survived an additional year but their behavior had been dramatically altered because of the relocation.  Gone were the spawn dances of the night, the attention they would give me during feeding and their look of vibrance.  But more importantly, not once during their captive life did any of these fish get sick or showed signs of illness.  Keeping Choati wrasses in a bare bottom quarantine tank and having them adapt to our internal clock was key to the success of this process.  Feeding them several times a day at first with food additives is also necessary.  Acclimation is not just placing the fish in water but allowing the fish to become adjusted to its new environment with time.

In conclusion, this method of acclimation has been accomplished five other times with great success and one other time with the death of the animal in less than 24 hours.  No real study has been done in the wild and no records or journals show the possible life span of these fish.

This Reef Builders Magazine Article Brought to you by our friends at Ecoxotic.

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