This is the fourth installation of a running series we call Reef Nuggets, a platform in which we share informative and useful tips on reef keeping in general. In this chapter we take a look at my recount regarding the maintenance and husbandry of Macropharyngodon vivienae, how they are kept, and the journey from collection to their current place in a home reef aquarium. The following notes can and should be applied to any member of the leopard wrasses, as well as other haremic sand dwelling species in the genus Pseudojuloides, Anampses and so on.
Before we start the recount, here’s a little background information first regarding the species. About a month ago we reported that the Gurroby Family in Mauritius have for the first time, documented and collected the species Macropharyngodon vivienae in their region. This is a range extension for this particular leopard wrasse, and prior to this was known only from Madagascar and the East African coast, as well as sporadic documentation of its existence in Kenya.
M. vivienae is a member of the “kuiteri complex” and is opal in the juvenile and female stages, with a cherry belt running horizontally along the dorsum. The fins are a translucent malt, and situated just slightly above and behind the gill cover is a black ocelli ringed in silver. Juveniles and small females as with most members of Macropharyngodon possess an additional set of ocelli on the rear end of both the dorsal and anal fin.
Like all leopard wrasses, Macropharyngodon are sequential protogynous hermaphrodites and are capable of sex changing into males when the social structure dictates an opportunity. As the females turn into functioning males in the terminal phase, the colour changes into a rather uniform shade of raspberry, while still keeping some of the opal coloured ventral portion of the body. The demarkation between the two shades however are no longer as sharply defined. The ear spot ocelli is also slightly more intricate in the males, which becomes blue with a network of yellow and green. Males are exceedingly rare in the trade and are very seldom collected.
Now back to the recount. About a month ago, Meneeka Gurroby from Mauritius contacted me regarding the identity of a then unknown juvenile Macropharyngodon. The juvenile is unlike any of the known species to inhabit the reefs of Mauritius, and based on some educated guesses, Macropharyngodon vivienae from Africa was the likeliest candidate. It wasn’t long before a small female was collected which confirmed the identity as well as the extension of its range.
Macropharyngodon are grazers of small benthic invertebrates and crustaceans. They feed all day in small amounts and really take their time to “chew” their food. They are unique in their morphology, possessing on the upper jaw a set of posterior canines that lend the name “Macropharyngodon” to the genus, which in greek means “big-throat-teeth”. Due to the lack of photos online showing the unique teeth structure of leopard wrasses, a pictorial diagram above should help you visualise what we’re talking about.
Because of their constant picking, they need to be fed regularly in small amounts, especially immediately post collection. The Gurroby Family held them for about a week or two before shipping, and during this period they were fed constantly and intensively. This definitely goes a long way in terms of acclimating and conditioning the fish. Allowing a fish to rest and fatten up post collection makes a world of difference, especially with fishes such as these. Once starved, leopards will often refuse feeding, or take a frustratingly painful amount of time to “learn” how to eat again.
Another important consideration was the size of the collected specimens. Four were collected, and of which three were minuscule juveniles barely two inches in length. Fish that are of this size will thin out very quickly and maintaining weight is tricky. Suitable food sizes should be offered as soon as possible, as well as constantly to help with the weight maintenance as well as development during this fast growing period.
The four leopards were sent to me two weeks after collection, and were received in optimal health. Due to their sand dwelling nature, a modified holding and quarantine tank should be provided for this species. Either the entire tank be filled with a soft sandy substrate, or trays filled with sand should be provided. From the point of collection to the second chain of custody, the wrasses were always provided with sand to sleep in as well as well as a constant supply of food in the form of frozen mysis, artemia or finely grated seafood.
A small tray or food container filled with sand is the best option when it comes to temporary holding tanks. It saves all the trouble of filling and cleaning an entire tank of sand, and also provides an easy way to remove and/or transport your portable sandy terrain. In the photo above, the quartet of M. vivienae shares their sandy abode with the likes of M. cyanoguttatus as well as Pseudojuloides xanthomos.
Two weeks later, the quartet was transferred to their third and final custodian. They were introduced into my reef, where they spend a great deal of time swimming and grazing together. Being haremic and very social, I expected to see all four of them interacting with each other closely, and I did. The largest female keeps the other three in check, who by now have grown about 1.5x their original sizes and are slowly outgrowing their juvenile phase and into the female phase.
Even amongst the three smaller individuals, some slight fin flaring and chasing was noted within the first few days. This “sizing up” behaviour amongst themselves will set the place and position of each member within this small hierarchy, and will continue to change and develop as the harem grows as a unit. Remember, being sequential hermaphrodites, the largest female will in the months to come, grow into a functional male and her position will be replaced by the next in line.
Although all four of these leopards were feeding very well on frozen as well as dry food, I was a little bit concerned if they were able to hold their own in a thriving community tank with a myriad of other fishes, many of which were bigger and faster than them.
In anticipation of their arrival since the very first day where the message was sent to me by the Gurroby family, I have intentionally scraped off all coraline growth on the entire back panel of my aquarium and instead, allowed short filamentous green algae to take over. This algae turf would in turn become a copepod ranch, so to speak, and would play host to a thriving population of amphipods and copepods.
Although I do not have a refugium, I have a permanent supply of amphipods living in the velcro side of my aquarium magnet cleaner. These do not get eaten by the fish living in the reef aquaria because of their genius hiding spot. Throughout the weeks where the algae was allowed to grow on the back panel of the glass, I stuck the magnet there in hopes that the pods and other mini crustaceans would seek that greener pasture and set up camp there.
I guess it probably worked as I see all four of the leopards constantly swimming against and picking at the algae turf, sometimes in a group feeding together. The short video above illustrates this algae wall and the grazing behaviour. Both Pseudojuloides as well as Synchiropus that live in the same aquarium has also benefitted from this turf, and it provides an additional source of food for the growing leopards in-between feedings. The leopards are kept active, curious, full, and it shows in their bulging bellies.
The best way to keep any leopard wrasse is definitely in a haremic structure such as this. To witness and document them interacting as they would in the wild is fascinating and something that i’ve always enjoyed and wanted to replicate. Whenever I go diving, which sadly is not often, I always try to catch a glimpse of M. meleagris or M. negrosensis playing around their rubble territories. It’s something so endearing and natural that once you’ve seen it in person, makes you wonder why anyone would keep leopards in a pair or even alone.
Well I hope the tips and methods that i’ve employed within this recount will be of help to you, and if you’re a wrasse guy, do consider keeping your fish in a small group such as this. While I like many species from so many genera, over the years as i’ve matured as an aquarist, I now collect less of everything, and focus on replicating what is natural to me.
Instead of buying many wrasses that I like, I now just get one or two that I love, and maintain them the way should be in nature. Cirrhilabrus, Paracheilinus, Macropharyngodon, Pseudojuloides etc are just some of the few you can try. But to me, nothing is more rewarding than leopard wrasses. Their curious, meandering style of swimming coupled with their constant foraging behaviour is a refreshing change from the more active Cirrhilabrus. They can be touchy, and they can be sensitive, but if collected properly and treated well from the ocean to your home, they can, as these have proven, make excellent and wonderful additions to your home aquarium.
A big thanks to the Gurroby family for the excellent care and quality of the leopards! The vivien’s leopard wrasse is now being collected more regularly from this location, and those who are a fan of this family should really give it a go!