The Red Sea leopard wrasse has long been considered a subspecies of the common and widespread splendid leopard wrasse, Macropharyngodon bipartitus. A recent analysis by the fish man himself John Randall revealed that these two fishes are different enough to warrant being separate species, and the difference is not as subtle as you’d think.
Like many fish found living in the Red Sea, the Red Sea leopard wrasse is a little bit brighter than the splendid leopard wrasse from the Western Indian Ocean. Juvenile coloration of both leopard wrasses is about the same, and so is the morphology but they diverge as they grow. The males and females of Macropharyngodon marisrubri are not only more colorful in just about every way, but the real big difference is in the dorsal fin.
Depending on where you are diving or collecting, it will be easy to discern Macropharyngodon marisrubri from M. bipartitus using geography. The Red Sea leopard wrasse is confined to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba while the splendid leopard wrasse is found throughout a big swath of the rest of the Western Indian Ocean.
Besides being separated geographically, the biggest difference between the two former subspecies is in the dorsal fin. We have always thought that many leopard wrasse species show an unusually short dorsal fin, especially in the anterior spiny portion. Apparently the Red Sea leopard wrasse thought so too because it decided to improve on its look by developing this region into something a little more pronounced.
Where the splendid leopard wrasse and most of its congeners have a relatively ‘flat topped’ dorsal fin, the Red Sea leopard wrasse has a dorsal fin with a much more developed spiny portion. In M. splendidus the dorsal fin spines are mostly even, Macropharyngodon marisrubri show dorsal spines that are each a little taller than the ones before them.
On paper the difference is subtle but the fully erect fins of the Red Sea eopard wrasse presents a much more elegant outline and a drop-dead gorgeous display. There’s been a ramp-up of collection efforts os marine fish in the Red Sea recently, so this is one species that is likely to come to a fish store near you. The new Red Sea leopard wrasse is described along with six other wrasse by John Randall in the Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation. [JOSF]
For more information about leopard wrasses in captivity definitely give a read to Tony Vargas’s full length article on the Australian Leopard Wrasse.