The Christmas wrasse (Halichoeres claudia) makes the perfect holiday addition to any saltwater aquarium tank. Seriously – it’s right there in the name. Okay, so maybe you’re scouting a new species outside of the winter festivities. This member of the Labridae family still works – provided you can find them in stock at your local fish store. That popular red and green color scheme makes them difficult to track down. And it doesn’t help that they’re easy to manage. (You may want to consider asking Santa for one after all!)
Table of Contents: Christmas Wrasse Care
As it turns out, “Christmas wrasse” shows up as a common name for plenty of fish in the Halichoeres genus. If a fish sports red and green scales – or shows up in the region of the Christmas Islands – people call it a Christmas wrasse. Not every wrasse is created equal, though. If you want to ensure you have the bonafide original, read through the links below. Otherwise, you may find yourself with an imposter – one demanding VERY different care needs.
- Quick Facts
- Description of the Christmas Wrasse
- Christmas Wrasse Lifespan
- Creating the Ideal Christmas Wrasse World
- Christmas Wrasse Diet
- Christmas Wrasse Behavior and Tank Mates
- Breeding the Christmas Wrasse
- Pros and Cons
- For More Information
- Common Names: Christmas wrasse, Red-lined wrasse, Biocellate wrasse, Ladder wrasse, Awela, Green-barred wrasse, Ornate wrasse
- Scientific Names: Halichoeres claudia
- Size: Up to 5 inches (12.7cm)
- Minimum Tank Size: 50 Gallons (189L)
- Reef Safe? Yes
- Care or Experience Level: Easy
- Preferred Diet: Carnivore
- Original Part of the World: Indo-Pacific
Christmas wrasses belong to the sequential hermaphrodite group of saltwater fish. This means they undergo changes in appearance depending on their gender. All wrasses start female. So you’ll see a pink to red background with greenish-blue stripes set out in a ladder pattern along the body. (Hence, the other common name of ladder wrasse) Around the head, the color breaks apart into spots. They’re “drab” in the overall color scheme.
When a harem loses its male, the most dominant female (usually the largest in the group) switches gender to take his place. Then you’ll see brighter colorations; instead of the subtle green-blue ladder, you get a vibrant green that adds the holiday cheer to the fish’s name. And instead of spots, you see lines of brown, orange, and blue around the head. There’s also a prominent red line beneath the eye.
The variation in color between the two sexes – and the drabber shades in younger Christmas wrasses – compound identification problems. Throw in the confusion of similar species living in the same regions, and it’s no wonder that so many hobbyists struggle to identify true Christmas wrasses.
For instance, the surge wrasse (Thalassoma purpureum) shares the same red and green color palette. One of the only ways to tell the two apart is to look for a V on the nose of the surge. Christmas wrasses don’t have that tell-tale mark. (They’re also not as large as these sturdier cousins, though that’s harder to pick out as juveniles)
Then you have the ornate or ornamented wrasse (Halichoeres ornatissimus). Again, you’ll find similar patterning. Christmas wrasses once belonged to this species; the two look THAT identical. But the ornate wrasse gets twice as large and only appears around Hawaii and Johnston Island. (Not that you can tell when they’re in a fish store)
Red and green wrasses are just plain confusing. It’s a lesson in never trusting common names. For instance, Christmas wrasses often appear under the name “red-lined wrasse” in fish stores. But – as you can see in the YouTube video below – the actual red-lined wrasse looks NOTHING like your anticipated holiday favorite:
If you’re trying to separate Christmas wrasses from their larger ornate cousins, look AWAY from Hawaii. The smaller species ventures throughout the Indo-Pacific. (So while they’re known as Awela in Hawaii, most people are probably referring to the larger ornate wrasse when they use that name) They’re frequent sights around rocky surf zones and throughout reefs.
Now, trying to recognize ONE Christmas wrasse for records isn’t an easy task. Members within a harem can easily change color (and sex) depending on the group’s needs. And you already know people mistake one species for another. As such, most lifespan estimates come from captive situations. And they’re not bad: Christmas wrasses survive around 4-10 years, depending on the care provided.
You WILL spot Christmas Wrasses around Hawaii. But they also extend their range out to Australia, French Polynesia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and even into the Indian Ocean. The red and green-striped fish form harems in rocky waters. You’ll also find them along the outer edges of barrier reefs, ducking in and out of coral in search of their next meals. It’s not unheard of to spot a solitary wrasse, either (usually a male).
They prefer the surf zone of that reef drop-off, around 115 feet (35m) down. You won’t see them much deeper than that. Though you WILL want to look toward the seafloor. As with other wrasse species, these fish burrow into the sand when they feel threatened and to rest for the night. The fringes of coral beds provide the perfect habitat.
So – as you probably guessed – you’ll want to prepare a deep sand bed for your Christmas wrasse. A minimum of 1.5 inches (3.8cm) will do, though 3 inches (7.6cm) is best. Your fish needs enough space to completely bury itself under the sand. (This is where proper identification comes in handy. If you bring home an ornate wrasse, you’ll need a DEEPER bed in your tank)
Proper substrate choice is critical. If you go too large on your choice of sand (or opt for gravel), you can shave years off the life of your Christmas wrasse. Sands above 4mm in grain size will slice into the skin of the fish. This leads to wounds and infection. (And, no, the fish is NOT smart enough to avoid such harsh substrates)
While you DO want to provide a proper sand bed, you should also incorporate live rock, complete with caves and crevices. Christmas wrasses have a shy streak. Their first instinct is to bolt for cover. And that may not be down to the bottom. Providing rockwork with somewhere to hide will alleviate potential stress. It’s NOT a substitute for the sand bed, though. Sleeping in the substrate overnight conserves energy use in this species. If you skip it and only provide the live rock, your wrasse will burn more calories and require MORE food. (And, as we’ll get to, you’re already going to face demands there)
Christmas Wrasse Tank Size
Oddly enough, keeping ONE Christmas wrasse is the best way to achieve the brightest colors. Unlike other fish species, which require competition to encourage spawning displays or flashy colors to defend territories, this species puts on the best red and green ALONE. And since they’re not the largest fish in the ocean, you can get away with a minimum tank size of 50 gallons (189L).
However, there’s a catch. Wild Christmas wrasses are used to living in the ocean. Even though they frequent shallower waters, they usually have more water over their heads than they find in the average aquarium. As such, they’re prone to attempting the age-old pursuit of carpet surfing. New purchases, especially, tend to bolt for the surface and land OUT of the tank.
You want to find a tight cover to prevent accidental escapes. Then you need to look at any openings for your cords or tubes. Christmas wrasses possess narrow bodies, and they WILL wriggle through a crack in your defense. Seal everything with mesh if you don’t want to come home and find your fish flopping on the floor.
Are Christmas Wrasses Reef-Safe?
Christmas wrasses perform a beneficial service to hobbyists: They eat fireworms and pyramid snails. As such, you can breathe easy; they’re reef-safe. As they hunt down obnoxious invertebrates in and around your corals, they’ll leave delicate polyps untouched. Meanwhile, your clams will remain safe and sound.
Of course, you need to think ahead before you add a wrasse to your saltwater aquarium. They ARE carnivores, and shrimp and feather dusters appear on their usual menu. You don’t want to risk losing any favorite crustaceans or mollusks. The best way to avoid the problem is to add your invertebrates FIRST. Give them a chance to grow a bit. Then you can introduce your Christmas wrasse.
It’s only tiny, new invertebrates that usually end up as snacks. So as long as you’re careful in how and when you add new creatures, you should do fine.
Pyramid snails and fireworms can devastate a saltwater tank in no time. The pests hitchhike on live rock, infiltrating an aquarium under cover of darkness. Before you realize you have a problem, the pests have set up a full-scale invasion. Good thing the Christmas wrasse finds these monsters such a delicacy.
And if you don’t have such obnoxious infiltrators to deal with, you still shouldn’t have a problem. These wrasses happily dine on the carnivore side of the menu. They feed on everything from shrimp to tubeworms to feather dusters in the wild. They’ll happily accept any of the following in the home aquarium:
Christmas wrasses remain active throughout the day. They do this with a SHORT digestive tract. That narrow body profile and the lack of a big stomach means they can swim without a break. But it also means they need to eat constantly to fuel their metabolism. If you want your wrasse to stay healthy, you need to offer food AT LEAST three times a day; four is better.
If well-fed, your Christmas wrasse shouldn’t start eyeing the invertebrates in the tank. But if you notice ornamental shrimp missing, it could signal a starving fish. You don’t want that. Of course, you also don’t want excess food waste gumming up your protein skimmer. It’s a careful balancing act. Watch your wrasse’s behavior to gauge how much to offer.
In the wild, Christmas wrasses appear on the reef alone, in pairs, or harems. They stay close to the bottom, where a quick dash can bring them safely to a cave or the sand. When not hiding from predators, they use their prominent canine teeth to pull food off the rocks. And – as with other Labrids – they use pharyngeal teeth within their gills to crush shells. In the evening, you get to enjoy the common sight of your wrasse bedding down for the night. Admit it, this is priceless:
Within home aquariums, they’re peaceful fish that tolerate other species without much trouble. You can even house them with other wrasses. (Well, as long as they don’t look similar. And we all know how many other red and green wrasses there are!)
The smaller and more peaceful their tank mates, the brighter your Christmas wrasse’s colors will get. (Okay, so maybe that’s the dominant side of things) As such, your best bet for a bright red and green fish lie with these groups as tank mates:
- Dwarf angelfish
Be careful how small you go with your tank mates, though. Christmas wrasses have decided to turn bully on the more passive species out there. They have no problem picking on fairy wrasses, flasher wrasses, and firefish. (Apparently, there IS a limit on their good natures)
You CAN keep Christmas wrasses together, but it’s a risk. They’ll do well while they’re young. Especially if you provide a tank large enough for everyone to establish individual territories. But as they age, the fish stop tolerating one another. You’ll end up with fighting. Eventually, you WILL need to separate the group.
Hobbyists don’t breed Christmas wrasses. It’s not because of special requirements or even the territorial issue. (Some people have managed to introduce a group into a tank successfully) Instead, the problem occurs with a quirk of maintaining the species in captivity.
Remember the sequential hermaphrodite biology? In most captive situations, this would result in a mated pair. After all, if you only have two fish, the odds dictate you should end up with one male and one female. But Christmas wrasses don’t play by the rules. In home aquariums, the species ALWAYS turn male. Even if you introduce a second (or third or sixth) fish, you will see the fish change to male coloration. It’s a strange habit.
As such, you won’t get to enjoy the female colors for long. Females possess ocelli (eyespots) on their dorsal fins. But as they switch gender, the ocelli disappear. The males DO show more intense colors during the spawning season. They also put on a dancing display, waving their pectoral fins around.
It’s common, in the wild, for a male to form a harem with several females. Obviously, though, you won’t see it replicated in captivity.
Nothing beats the wintery colors of red and green. Okay, so there are plenty of fish out there with the same combination. But Christmas wrasses have plenty of other nifty things to offer, once you start looking. (For one, how many other fish out there have “Christmas” in their name?)
- Christmas wrasses feed on fireworms and pyramid snails, helping eradicate these pests from your tank.
- Remaining active throughout the day, these wrasses create vibrant displays in saltwater aquariums.
- Christmas wrasses are flexible in their dietary preferences, accepting most meaty offerings.
- Christmas wrasses require deep sand beds – with sand grains of no more than 4mm – to hide in and retire to each night.
- If you want the best color and behavior from your wrasse, you should stick to ONE fish per tank.
- Christmas wrasses are sequential hermaphrodites, but the species changes to male in captive situations, regardless of the stocking in your aquarium.
Maybe Christmas wrasses don’t have much to do with the holidays, outside of a festive color scheme. They’re still tops when it comes to easily-managed fish that provide beneficial help to the average hobbyist. And you can’t beat a species that looks its best ALONE. So why don’t you dive into a little more information? Just in case you need some extra help deciding whether to ask Santa to bring one.
This YouTube video walks you through everything you need to know about Christmas wrasses:
Want to know about some of the best Christmas wrasse tank mates?
Maybe you’d rather consider a different wrasse species for your tank:
There are a TON of red and green wrasses out there. The Christmas wrasse isn’t even the biggest species available. But its helpful desire to rid your tank of fireworms (a painful problem for you) and pyramid snails (a major issue for your Tridacna clams) isn’t something to overlook.
Besides, how can you resist those colorful stripes? Or the chance to discuss their curious sex-changing habits over the evening meal? (Nothing says holidays like an awkward family conversation!)
- Aspinall, R. 2014. “Aquarium Fish: Halichoeres Wrasses: Are They the Best Fish?” Advanced Aquarist.
- Michael, S.W. 2001. Reef Fishes: Volume 1.
- Michael, S.W. 2009. Wrasses and Parrotfishes.
- Randall, J.E., Allen, G.R., and Steene, R.C. 1990. Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea.