The members of the lanceolatus group are some of the largest and showiest fairy wrasses, collectively celebrated for their grandiose caudal fin and chromatic brilliance. The group spans most of the Indo-Pacific, with its various species occupying a series of non-overlapping biogeographic ranges which fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This puzzle analogy is apt, as this group has been the source of a disproportionate amount of taxonomic confusion.
Nine species comprise this group, one of which represents a highly aberrant form currently placed in the monotypic genus Conniella. They can be identified with relative ease based on a few key characteristics. The most obvious feature would be the possession of a tapering lanceolate caudal fin (this is absent in three of the group members). A prominent dorsal stripe is always present, although its extension into the ocular region is subject to individual species (most of which have it). A cheek stripe is also mostly present in the members, and together, these stripes are very prominently displayed in scintillating colors during nuptial display.
The hypothesized phylogenetic tree above demonstrates the plausible members of this group and their cladistic pairing. As with all the phylogenetic models presented so far, these are of course cursory attempts without much needed genetic information. However, reasons as to why, and how we came to this conclusion will be elaborated further in the specific clade and species sections.
The key features of the lanceolatus group members are featured above, using Cirrhilabrus roseafascia as an example. These traits present themselves one way or another in all members, sans the caudal elongation in C. jordani, C. claire and C. rubrisquamis. Although these three lack the obvious lanceolate tail, it does not warrant their displacement from this group, and we’ll elaborate more on them in the individual species sections.
The juveniles and initial female forms are also presented above, color-coded and grouped according to their hypothesized clades. Similarities can be seen between presumed sister species, while there are greater differences observed between the clades. Cirrhilabrus lanceolatus and C. roseafascia for example are nearly indistinguishable, and possess a series of white lines interlaced with white spots.
If you recall in the previous article, the lunatus group members have similar appearances in their corresponding life stages. Moreover, the “pintail” wrasse in the lunatus group is also remarkable for possessing a lanceolate caudal fin with corresponding blue lines, a trait seen only in the lanceolatus group. This serves to link the two groups together.
The lanceolatus clade
The lanceolatus clade is notable for possessing two of the most dapper species in the genus, and it is in these two that the epithet “lanceolatus” really bears weight. The sister species C. roseafascia and C. lanceolatus are both rare, highly prized aquarium species. Both are strictly Pacific in distribution, with C. roseafascia enjoying a large but disjunct range, while Cirrhilabrus lanceolatus is restricted to Japan.
Terminal males can be differentiated based on minor differences in color as well as their allopatric distributions. C. roseafascia and C. lanceolatus are very similar, especially in their juvenile and female stages.
The lanceolatus clade members are remarkable for their long tapering sword like tails, which, in fully developed males, can account for up to a third of the total length. They are some of the largest Cirrhilabrus, attaining sizes up to and exceeding six inches. Both are deepwater, usually only becoming apparent at 150ft. Cirrhilabrus roseafascia however, can be found in notably deeper terrain, sometimes up to 300ft.
In this delicate and elegantly colored species, C. roseafascia is carnation with a mango colored dorsum and nape. The usual dorsal stripe in the lanceolatus group is present, and it runs complete and connected past the eye, ending at the upper lip. The epithet “roseafascia” is coined for its dorsal stripe, which when translated to English means “rose-band”. A thinner cheek stripe in the same color runs parallel just beneath.
Cirrhilabrus roseafascia has hyaline median fins, variably tinted in chalky white to chartreuse. The anterior dorsal fin is usually more strongly colored in yellow, with the opacity decreasing towards the posterior regions. The pelvic fins are navy in the inner portions, edged in cerulean near the softer outer region. In C. roseafascia, this blue section never reaches the first spinous ray of the pelvic fin, and this serves as a reliable character to separate it from the next species.
The caudal fin is remarkably long, but this feature is a sexually dimorphic trait that only terminal males possess. It is translucent pink with a pair of diagonal blue lines leading to the terminus. In females, the tails are rounded, but the central rays have the ability to elongate dramatically as the fish matures into the male stage.
The nuptial coloration for C. roseafascia is similar to its resting phase, but with several key traits of the lanceolatus group displayed in greater prominence. The diagnostic double diagonal lines of the caudal fin, for example, appear in greater contrast. The dorsal, eye and cheek stripes glitters in a satiny lilac, and the median fins turn whitish.
Pay special attention to the blue markings on the pelvic fins as it brightens up during nuptial display in the photo above. Again, this pelvic blotch never touches the first spinous ray and is confined to the posterior soft portion of the fin.
Cirrhilabrus roseafascia has a large but disjunct geographical range, suggestive of the possible presence of cryptic species. C. roseafascia was first known from Bulari Pass, New Caledonia. This served as the species’ type location, and it’s likely that C. roseafascia extends to the nearby Coral Sea as well. Based on trends of endemic speciation seen elsewhere in Cirrhilabrus, specimens from New Guinea and Vanuatu could possibly represent their own taxa. A similar case of cryptic speciation may also occur in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. C. roseafascia is strangely not recorded from Indonesia, though it should be expected to occur there.
It is undoubtedly found in other surrounding regions as well, but the exact extent of its range is not well documented because of its deep-water nature. C. roseafascia is frequently observed in steep patchy clearings, often in association with non-photosynthetic gorgonians, sponges, black coral and Tubastraea.
C. roseafascia is sporadic in the trade, appearing only infrequently and never in any abundance. Large males are particularly rare, and when offered, usually command a fairly high price.
A handsome species bearing the “lanceolatus” moniker, Cirrhilabrus lanceolatus cannot be confused with any other member aside from the preceding species. This ravishing beauty shares the same body coloration and patterning as Cirrhilabrus roseafascia, but the rose-banded dorsal, eye and cheek stripes are replaced instead by a deep amethyst purple. The coloration of its fins are also diagnostic and unique to this species, setting itself apart from all other Cirrhilabrus.
The dorsal fin is a hyaline teal, trimmed in a highly reflective emerald iridescence. The same iridescence is also displayed marginally in the anal and caudal fins, but the base coloration of these fins are chalkier. The caudal fin bears the typical paired diagonal stripes, and the central rays are extremely elongate in terminal males. The caudal fin length equals and often exceeds that of C. roseafascia.
Cirrhilabrus lanceolatus can be differentiated from C. roseafascia by its pelvic fin spot. In C. lanceolatus, the spot is poorly defined and not bordered by any metallic iridescence. The spot is but a smudge, present on the inner portion of the pelvic fin, where it always touches the first spinous ray (never in C. roseafascia).
Cirrhilabrus lanceolatus in nuptial display is marvelously breathtaking. While the body coloration remains pretty much the same, its fins burst into a scintillating display of malachite green fire. The dorsal, and now cantaloupe colored caudal fins are especially lustrous, giving the illusion of a wispy glitter illuminating the shadowy reefs.
The anal fin loses all traces of aquamarine, and takes on a dark plum bordered in an electrifying blue. The pelvic fins intensify to yellow, and the posterior smudge becomes more evident. The trademark dorsal, eye and cheek stripes brighten to a lovely powder blue, but its satiny sheen loses shine only to the retina burning aquamarine.
C. lanceolatus is restricted to Japan, specifically in the regions of Okinawa and Honshu; however it might possibly range to the Mariana Islands. The species frequents very deep waters in excess of 200ft. Like its sister species, Cirrhilabrus lanceolatus prefers rubble landscapes replete with non-photosynthetic deepwater corals, such as Cirrhipathes, gorgonians, sponges and other associated fauna.
Cirrhilabrus lanceolatus is exceedingly rare in the trade, with specimens commanding exorbitant prices in the low thousands. The gargantuan size of this fairy wrasse dwarfs most other Cirrhilabrus in comparison, and it’s one of the few species that will take to baited hooks; this species is sometimes caught on the reel by Japanese fishermen.
[Update] The above image was added post completion of this article.
The jordani clade
The jordani clade houses two members, both of which rebel against the lanceolatus stereotype, possessing instead rounded caudal fins – they are Cirrhilabrus jordani and C. claire. Both are available to hobbyists in the aquarium trade, with C. claire being exceedingly rare and extremely expensive.
Both species in this group have rather restricted ranges in the Pacific Ocean. Cirrhilabrus jordani is primarily a Hawaiian endemic, although it can also be found at Midway and Johnston Atolls. Cirrhilabrus claire is found further south in the Cook Islands and Tahiti (although this range is almost surely an exaggerated truncation of its true distribution).
The jordani clade members are almost exclusively deep water. This is especially so for Cirrhilabrus claire, which only becomes apparent at 300ft and below. Cirrhilabrus jordani can be found shallower, although only becoming common pass 150ft. C. jordani should be found at shallower depths in the colder waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and Midway Atoll, where numerous deepwater species (Genicanthus personatus, Bodianus sanguineus, etc) are known to inhabit recreational SCUBA depths.
Both species are relatively consistent in their individual coloration, and although are colored very differently, are group together based on shared similarities such as an encapsulated head and the distinct lack of spots or stripes. The caudal fins are rounded (extremely in C. jordani) and without the characteristic diagonal lines, while the pelvic fins are rather short (longer in C. claire). The larger pelvic fins in C. claire are noteworthy for this part of the phylogenetic tree.
Familiarity has made us jaded with the magnificence of this species. Aptly named the Flame fairy wrasse, Cirrhilabrus jordani is a rich scarlet over much of its body, fading into an equally giddy saffron yellow along the nape, face, medial and ventral half of the body. The species is otherwise very simply marked, with the standard lanceolatus group stripes being the only noticeable pattern.
The dorsal stripe runs completely along the base of the dorsal fin before terminating at the upper lip, touching partially the circumference of the eye just before termination. A corresponding cheek stripe runs parallel just below this, and stops just before the pectoral fin base.
The median fins are rotund and scarlet, but in fully developed males the anal fin is rich saffron yellow (occasionally suffusing the caudal fin). The pelvic fins are short and yellow, differing greatly from the unusually elongated and variably colored pelvic fins of its sister, C. claire. The pectoral fins are clear and edged on the outer margin in red.
The nuptial form of C. jordani is remarkably stunning, and cements its position as one of the most attractive and well loved of the Cirrhilabrus. It is during this display where its truly plump and rotund fins are displayed in full prominence. During its nuptial dance, Cirrhilabrus jordani intensifies into a rich gold, pushing the scarlet portions strictly into the dorsal and caudal fins with only a smudge remaining near the dorsum.
The dorsal, eye and cheek stripes glitter in a satiny lilac, and this is where its placement in the lanceolatus group becomes truly evident. This nuptial pattern is a recurring theme in all the group members. In addition, an extra stripe develops at the posterior venter, tracing the base of the anal fin before terminating midway. This second stripe is seen only during nuptial display.
Cirrhilabrus jordani is primarily endemic to Hawaii, and is the only member of its genus in this geographically isolated region. It ranges north to Midway, and occasionally, vagrants are documented in the Johnston Atolls (but the population density there is nowhere near as abundant as in Hawaii proper). It may also possibly be found at depth in the Wake Island. The species is common and only moderately expensive in the aquarium trade.
An extremely enigmatic species, Cirrhilabrus claire only revealed its living coloration in 2012, when a pair was collected alive for the first time in Tahiti. For more than a decade since its description in 2001, the species was known (to the general public) only via its preserved and discolored holotype photos. Its coloration in life was left to the avid imagination of wrasse aficionados based on a short, barely informative description. The species is named in honour of Claire Michihara, whose husband collected the first known specimens. “claire” is used here as a noun in apposition.
Its documented range at the time was only known from the Cook Islands, and so these new specimens not only gave the world a glimpse of its live coloration, it also represented a range extension for the species.
In 2014, the species made an appearance again from the Cook Islands, but this time it showed a remarkable difference in coloration from the Tahitian specimens obtained in 2012. The revelation of these specimens from the type locale meant that these were the “true to type” C. claire, while the Tahitian ones probably represented a different color morph or a possible new species. Seeing as the Cook Islands “type” of Cirrhilabrus claire came after the differently colored ones from Tahiti, some slight confusion on the color variations and location ensued.
Cirrhilabrus claire from the Cook Islands is lavender with a dirty olive-green slate in matured, terminal males. A dark purple dorsal stripe is present, but instead of continuing to pass the eye, it makes a sharp oblique dip and joins with the lower cheek stripe.
The eye stripe is still present, but is disconnected and sits alone. This facial pattern is the exact reverse in Cirrhilabrus jordani, where the eye stripe connects with the dorsal stripe and the cheek stripe sits alone. The head is encapsulated in olive-green by the oblique connection of the dorsal and cheek stripes.
The dorsal fin is cadmium orange with lighter undertones, and the caudal and ventral fins are lavender. In very terminal males however, the caudal, anal and pelvic fins lose the lavender undertones and take on a rich cadmium, just like the dorsal fin. The tail is posteriorly margined in olive.
Unlike Cirrhilabrus jordani, C. claire has noticeably longer pelvic fins, tapering into a very slight trailing filament. In fact, it is the only species in its group (or in related species groups) with such enlarged pelvic fins, indicating a unique acquisition of this character state.
The Tahitian variety is colored slightly differently. It shares with the former the same lavender ground color complete with the usual olive slate. Running dorsally is the same purple stripe that makes an oblique dip, before connecting with the cheek stripe. The eye stripe is also present, and as usual, is interrupted and sits alone.
The median fins however are noticeably different. Instead of orange, the dorsal and anal fins in the Tahitian variants are heavily blackened. The anal and caudal fins are yellow, and on the latter it is edged submarginally in blue, and marginally in black instead of olive.
Interestingly, under very peculiar lighting conditions (such as direct camera flash), the olive suffusion takes on a very strong ectoplasmic green sheen over much of its body. In large males this can be strong enough to totally obliterate the underlying lavender hue. The differences in the two regional forms are quite clear, but whether the Tahitian ones represent a different species or not is still undetermined.
It seems unlikely that Tahiti harbors a separate, distinct species from the Cook Island types. With the exception of perhaps a few seamounts, there is very little territory between the Cook Islands and Tahiti to suggest that these may represent separate taxa. The bigger question is what lies to the east in the Tuamotu, Marquesas and Line Islands? The latter two are plausible locations for new species discovery.
It is curious however that both forms for now appear to be mutually exclusive where they occur. Seeing as this species is very deepwater, it is without a doubt that a greater undocumented geographical range occurs for both. How extensive, and whether or not they mix, is of crucial importance. DNA analysis for the two forms may or may not prove useful at this point, but it wouldn’t hurt to have them tested nonetheless. It is doubtful however that these color differences indicate anything but differences in maturity (for now).
Both forms of Cirrhilabrus claire are indistinguishable in the female stage, and are nondescript light lavender with a yellow encapsulated head. Individuals in stress coloration display a series of small white spots running along the dorsum, no doubt a remnant trait from its juvenile form. The females of Cirrhilabrus jordani look similar, but are red overall instead of lavender.
Not much is known regarding the juvenile form of Cirrhilabrus claire, and the nuptial form has so far not been documented yet. However it is almost certain that the dorsal and facial stripes will glow in a lighter, perhaps lilac or blue coloration. What other modifications to the body and fin coloration during nuptial display is anyone’s guess for now. Perhaps those who have kept, or are currently keeping this species in captivity could help to document the nuptial coloration of this species.
Both forms of C. claire are available to the trade, albeit extremely rarely. Its deepwater nature, isolated range and relatively new debut in the market puts this species right at the top of the Cirrhilabrus price range, and it is currently the most expensive (comparable only perhaps to Cirrhilabrus lanceolatus) of the obtainable fairy wrasses.
[Update] The above three photos were added post completion of this article.
The blatteus clade
Unlike the jordani and the lanceolatus clades, the blatteus clade is where things start to get hazy, with the interrelationships within this clade being largely unresolved. We feel that this clade is home to three members, namely Cirrhilabrus blatteus, C. sanguineus and C. rubrisquamis. How the three fit together is hard to understand, and their placement is of course, only hypothesized and tentative at best.
It may seem like a weird decision including C. rubrisquamis in this group, but like C. jordani and C. claire, the lack of a lanceolate caudal fin does not immediately disqualify its placement here. Like the latter two, it bears the same characteristic markings and traits that the lanceolatus group members share.
The three species are allopatric, with similarities in color patterns suggesting that they are sisters to each other. The blatteus clade members are vaguely similar in possessing a “hooded” pattern on their head, a trait not seen in the other lanceolatus group members.
The complication comes in deciding which two of the three are paired “sisters”, while the other one assumes the basal position. On one hand, Cirrhilabrus blatteus and C. sanguineus can be paired based on the assumption that both possess a lanceolate caudal fin as well as the purplish-red body coloration seen in males, with C. rubrisquamis being basal to the two.
On the other hand, C. sanguineus can be paired with C. rubrisquamis on the premise that both share similar caudal and dorsal fin coloration, with C. blatteus being the odd one out, left to speciate away from the others in its highly restricted range of the Red Sea.
Yet another permutation includes the pairing of C. blatteus with C. rubrisquamis, with the two sisters being grouped based on the closeness of their ranges. A similar species pairing occupying the same range is seen in the rubriventralis group. What about Cirrhilabrus sanguineus then? Did its isolation in Mauritius cause it to deviate from the other two? In other words, too many scenarios, not enough data, and confusion ensues.
Whatever the exact relationship of the three, it is undeniable that they are related in some manner. The blatteus clade members are strictly Indian Ocean in distribution, with C. rubrisquamis ranging in the Maldives, to the Chagos Archipelago and Sri Lanka, and C. sanguineus and C. blatteus being restricted in Mauritius and the Red Sea respectively. Following the general trend of Cirrhilabrus biogeography, it is also not unlikely that a possible endemic sister lies undiscovered in the waters of East Africa.
C. blatteus and C. sanguineus are strictly deepwater, whereas C. rubrisquamis is frequently found in shallower depths where it is collected for the aquarium trade.
Cirrhilabrus blatteus is known from very few photos and specimens, and it, along with C. sanguineus and C. claire, are three of the most enigmatic members in this group. C. blatteus is variable in its ground coloration, being either a light carnation or a malt yellow. A dark, grape colored dorsal stripe runs in the typical fashion of the lanceolatus group, but stops just at the base of the dorsal fin and does not travel past the eye. A second stripe runs equatorially along the length of the fish, from the middle of the caudal peduncle to the base of the pectoral fin.
C. blatteus lacks any noticeable eye or cheek stripes in its resting coloration. It has instead a rather unique head pattern. A distinctive rose-colored hood cloaks much of its head, but makes an oblique trapezoid break just above the pectoral fin base. This void is filled with a spot of similar color and it gives the fish a rather unique “clown” like appearance.
The dorsal fin is cyan or purplish, depending on its mood, and is entirely translucent. The pelvic and anal fins are pink washed, and the caudal is rather beautifully colored. A pair of diagonal blue lines traces the outline of the caudal margins, with a corresponding pair tracing the inner portions forming a large chevron. The inner section is bright sulfur, while the outer section is hyaline.
Only a single photo of Cirrhilabrus blatteus in its nuptial display exists online. In its nuptial phase, the dorsal, anal and pelvic fins turn a deep crimson and are edged in turquoise. The body lightens medially, and both the equatorial and dorsal stripes turn crimson as well.
The caudal fin lightens and the paired diagonal blue lines glow in the same shade of turquoise as the median fin outlines. Interestingly, although not present in its resting phase, the characteristic eye and cheek stripes of the lanceolatus group develops during nuptial display. The rose-colored hood disappears in a flash of white, but the unusually marked cheek pattern is still present.
Cirrhilabrus blatteus is found mainly in the waters of the Red Sea and Israel, where it is restricted to a few deep reefs. It can be found in deep rubble slopes adjacent to drop offs, at depths up to 230ft.
The habitat in which this species occurs is very typical of the genus, mostly flat, monotonous terrain riddled with rubble and replete with broken reef fragments. The photo above shows the species in its element at 200ft in Eilat, at the Gulf of Aqaba. Notice the typical haremic structure in which all Cirrhilabrus adopt, with numerous females swimming just a couple of feet above the substrate, tended to by a single terminal male (center).
Any coral growth in these types of habitat is usually restricted to a few low-lying LPS or soft corals. Contrary to most reef aquariums, very seldom are Cirrhilabrus associated with dense gardens of Acropora or other SPS species. In Indonesia, the rubble patch reefs are often replete with Fungia or Xenia, providing a very niche habitat for Cirrhilabrus and Paracheilinus. In the habitat of C. blatteus, it appears that Alveopora reigns dominance.
The females are rather drab, being a uniform powder pink overall with the equatorial purple stripe broken up into a series of dots. This lends to the species’ common name; the Purple-boned Fairy Wrasse. The females also lack the distinct cranial hood, facial mask and characteristic lanceolate tail.
Cirrhilabrus blatteus has not made its aquarium debut yet, and is currently unavailable to the hobby. It is a quintessential “book fish”.
Like the preceding species, Cirrhilabrus sanguineus is known from very few individuals, with almost all available photos of this fish coming from a single aquarium specimen belonging to Dr. Hiroyuki Tanaka.
This species has an interesting history. It was first known from Mauritius in the late 1980’s, with a single holotype specimen under the care of Dr. John Randall awaiting formal description. Alain Cornic borrowed photos from Randall to publish in his book, and unexpectedly named it without any formal examination or description papers. Cornic gave the name Cirrhilabrus sanguineus in his book. Needless to say, Randall was livid, and in a futile attempt to transfer naming rights, Cirrhilabrus sanguineus was officially, and poorly described by Cornic in 1987.
(Rather interestingly, a parallel species in the genus Paracheilinus shared the same fate as Cirrhilabrus sanguineus. Paracheilinus piscilineatus was also described by Cornic in the same publication, with only six lines to its description and erroneously named as Cirrhilabrus piscilineatus. Randall finally amended all mistakes and redescribed Cirrhilabrus sanguineus in 1995. Cirrhilabrus piscilineatus was also reclassified and redescribed, and in 1999 it received its official correct placement in the genus Paracheilinus.)
Cirrhilabrus sanguineus is alabaster, variably washed in a pink suffusion over its body. The head is shielded in a crimson hood, with the eye and cheek stripes almost fully cloaked and rendered innocuous. Just behind the cranial hood is a series of oblique bands, colored in a rainbow of steel blue, malt yellow and blood red respectively. The last band, in its distinctive hemoglobin coloration, is responsible for its specific epithet “sanguineus”, which comes from the word “sanguis” for blood. Cornic, in his inadvertent plagiarism, named this species in reference to that trait, and gave the common name “Blood-stained Fairy Wrasse”.
The fins are rather poorly marked and colored in the same hue as the body. The caudal fin is lanceolate, hyaline and adorned with the characteristic diagonal blue lines that run to the terminus.
In its nuptial phase, Cirrhilabrus sanguineus lightens to a dingy ecru over the body, dorsal and anal fins. The pelvic fins intensify to a golden yellow, and the tail to a bright lilac. The blood red stain screams bloody murder in a loud contrast against the now ghostly body, and the middle malt yellow band disappears. The first steely blue band now darkens to a sooty black, and the crimson hood lightens to reveal the now very prominent and characteristic eye and cheek stripes.
The females are similarly marked, but lack the lanceolate tail. Females also lack the body bands, and the blood-red stain is reduced to a mere speck.
Cirrhilabrus sanguineus is known so far only from Mauritius, at depths exceeding 200ft. As usual it is fond of rubble slopes and patch reefs away from drop offs, riddled with rubble and broken reef structures. It likely occurs in the Seychelles as well, as other regionally endemic wrasses (e.g. Pseudojuloides argyreogaster) occur there.
This species is exceedingly rare in the trade, with only a single male and a single female specimen being documented to enter the Japanese market. How many specimens in total are currently unclear, but it is safe to say that the numbers are anywhere less than five. None have entered the market in decades, and its deep and isolated range, despite frequent collection in Mauritius, probably protects the species.
This peculiar species is variably colored, ranging from peach, to salmon or coral. The anterior portion of its body is overlaid in magenta, giving it a hooded appearance up to a third of its body length. The magenta scales are edged in ruby, forming a network of highly unusual, almost net-like mesh. The specific epithet “rubrisquamis” translates to “red-scaled”, and this can be seen very clearly in the markings above.
The pelvic, dorsal and anal fins are magenta shot, becoming more translucent and hyaline towards the posterior. The rays are amethyst purple and stand out very well against the translucency of the fins. The caudal fin adopts the same rayed-appearance, and it possesses the characteristic diagonal blue lines. However due to the lack of a lanceolate tail, the diagonal blue lines do not run to the terminus, but instead converge together in a circumference around the rounded caudal fin.
One might find the placement of Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis in the lanceolatus group to be contentious and nonsensical, but its nuptial form reveals more similarities that are convincing enough to warrant its placement here. In its nuptial display, Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis lightens to a bright white. The magenta hood intensifies, and the ruby-edged scales deepen to a dark claret. The pelvic and anterior dorsal fins turn a rich gold, but the rest of the fins remain hyaline with a wispy glow. The caudal fin intensifies, and the portions bounded by the diagonal blue lines turn cherry red.
The dorsal, eye and cheek stripe of the lanceolatus group emerges in a satiny lilac, and this is where its resemblance to the other group members really shows. Its similarities to Cirrhilabrus sanguineus become very apparent in its nuptial display, proving that the two may indeed be sisters of each other.
Females are similar to males, but without any color on the fins and the magenta hood is less pronounced.
Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis is found in the Maldives, the Chagos Archipelago and Sri Lanka, although it is mostly only collected for the trade in the former. Whether or not its range extends further to the Andamans is unclear, or whether or not an undiscovered species similar to this occurs there. C. rubrisquamis is fairly common and affordable, and this species is popular amongst fairy wrasse enthusiasts.
The earlei clade
The earlei clade is atypical for possessing two members, one of which does not belong to the genus Cirrhilabrus. Conniella is a monotypic genus with a single, highly aberrant species lacking pelvic fins and their associated structures. Apart from its unusual morphology, its appearance and behavior are nearly identical to Cirrhilabrus, in particular Cirrhilabrus earlei.
It’s highly bizarre and unusual that two genera would fall under the same cladistic grouping, but the resemblance of Conniella to Cirrhilabrus is too uncanny to ignore. Moreover its resemblance to the nearly identical Cirrhilabrus earlei definitely suggests a shared common ancestor, but how this Conniella and C. earlei clade relates to the rest of the lanceolatus group is unclear.
Conniella apterygia and Cirrhilabrus earlei are unusual in possessing numerous horizontal lines, a pattern rarely seen in any of the lanceolatus group members, or Cirrhilabrus for that matter (the distantly related C. marjorie has faint horizontal stripes). This unusual striping and the fact that both these species occur in separate ocean basins may suggest a basal lineage of the lanceolatus group, although without any genetic evidence, this is purely speculation at this point.
Both species possess lanceolate caudal fins, bearing the typical diagonal blue lines. They also possess the characteristic dorsal and eye stripe of the lanceolatus group members.
The earlei clade members occupy two separate oceans, with C. earlei being found in Palau and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific (although the range probably extends further than what is currently documented). Conniella is endemic to a highly restricted Indian Ocean range far off the Northwestern Australian coast, in a reef known as the Rowley Shoals.
Cirrhilabrus earlei is a marvelous species, with a ground color varying between light pink to deep magenta. The fish is decorated in a series of transverse indigo lines, a unique trait that is rarely seen in Cirrhilabrus. A deeper mangosteen stripe runs along the dorsal ridge, passing the eye and connecting to the eye stripe. The cheek region behind the operculum is amber, and the dorsal, pelvic and anal fins are translucent purple in immature males.
Matured males develop a more orangey tone to the median fins, and the rays are contrasted in deep purple. Cirrhilabrus earlei is a large species, attaining lengths rivaling that of Cirrhilabrus lanceolatus. Terminal males develop a lanceolate caudal fin, which is magenta shot and decorated in the characteristic diagonal blue lines.
The nuptial form of C. earlei is rather similar to the resting form, with a notable increase in coloration. The pelvic and anal fins turn a deep orange, and the body darkens to a rich magenta. The dorsal fin whitens on the anterior half, and a prominent black spot appears on the first two dorsal spines.
The trademark lanceolatus group dorsal and eye stripes bear full prominence, and glows in a shimmery amethyst. It is noteworthy that all aquarium males so far are rather young, and there has not been any fully-grown terminal males made available yet. The nuptial colors therefore could be incomplete or only partially displayed.
The females are colored similarly to the males, but with very much subdued markings and coloration. Very small juveniles may not show the characteristic stripes quite as prominently, but this species can always be differentiated from other sympatric Cirrhilabrus by its purple eye ring within the iris.
Cirrhilabrus earlei is very deepwater, being found in depths exceeding 300ft. Although the largest specimen recorded to date measures in at 5.5 inches (14cm), most of the specimens caught for the trade barely exceed over 3 inches. It is highly possible that the preferred habitat for this species occurs much deeper, and those collected for the aquarium trade are smaller specimens just scratching the periphery of its depth range.
This species is a relative newcomer to the trade. It was once incredibly rare, with haphazard appearances from Palau, but since its discovery in the Marshall Islands, its availability and prevalence in the trade has increased drastically. While still costly, it is by no means as expensive as it once was. The perceived increase in availability should by no means cheapen its value. Cirrhilabrus earlei still remains as one of the most beautiful and sought after deepwater species in the market.
Conniella is a monotypic genus with only one member. C. apterygia is a highly curious and aberrant wrasse, with an astonishing resemblance to the preceding species. It varies between white to baby pink, and is decorated in a series of transverse maraschino lines. The dorsum is suffused slightly in yellow, and while its dorsal stripe is not as evident as with Cirrhilabrus earlei, it undoubtedly is still present.
The head is masked anteriorly in the same maraschino, and this bleeds downward as an oblique sash splitting the white trapezoid post-operculum patch into two. This serves as the main difference in coloration between the species and Cirrhilabrus earlei. Conniella also display horizontal lines which extend anterior of the pectoral fins. In Cirrhilabrus earlei the lines do not pass this boundary.
Terminal males develop a lanceolate caudal fin, which is magenta shot and decorated in the characteristic diagonal blue lines. The fins (especially the dorsal) also take on a more orangey tone with maturation. As is characteristic of the monotypic genus and species, C. apterygia lacks pelvic fins and all associated supporting structures. Its highly aberrant and atypical form has earned this species its common name of “Mutant Wrasse”, and although not obvious at first glance, its lack of pelvic fins really throws you off on closer inspection.
Conniella apterygia has not been photographed or documented showing nuptial colors, but seeing as this species is so similar to Cirrhilabrus, there is little doubt that males engage in similar displays during courtship. In a predictable fashion, the species would likewise most probably develop a transient but highly metallic display of its dorsal and eye stripe.
The females are very similar to that of Cirrhilabrus earlei, sans pelvic fins, and in juveniles a tiny black spot can be seen on the caudal peduncle (a trait very common in juveniles of Cirrhilabrus).
The overwhelming similarity between these two species is a perfect example of the imperfect nature of the current classification. There is little doubt that had C. earlei been discovered first, “Conniella” would have been recognized as nothing more than a strange endemic sister species with the unusual trait of lacking pelvic fins. A similar situation can be seen in the Devil’s Hole pupfish, another endemic species that differs from its congeners in lacking pelvic fins.
Conniella apterygia is not available to the trade, and will most likely stay that way for the time being. The equally enigmatic Cirrhilabrus randalli shares its range in the Rowley Shoals, and that species shares the same fate as C. apterygia in being remotely isolated and unavailable to aquarists.
In conclusion, a myriad of uncertainties plague the lanceolatus group. Without genetic studies, it is difficult to truly access the relationship between Cirrhilabrus blatteus, C. sanguineus and C. rubrisquamis. Likewise, Cirrhilabrus earlei and Conniella apterygia, despite being so uncanny in their resemblance, are still subject to many questions regarding their genetic similarities and evolutionary history.
How does Conniella fit into Cirrhilabrus, and how do we explain the bizarre loss of its pelvic fins? The most likely explanation is that, given its small and isolated range, the species underwent a “genetic bottleneck”, with normally deleterious mutations increasing in prevalence due to the heavy inbreeding of such a small population. But it’s interesting to note how a species which shares its limited range, Cirrhilabrus randalli, shows less indication of such genetic homogeneity.
And finally, how many other members of the lanceolatus group are there left to be discovered? With their penchant for deepwaters, it is highly likely that more await discovery, especially in the East African coast and the Marquesas. Indonesia, the Line Islands, the Andaman Sea and Western Java/Sumatra may potentially harbor new species as well.