Parrotfish put on their big boy pants

While it would be awesome if parrotfish were named for their conversational abilities, it turns out that they earn their moniker for their specialized teeth that are fused together for scraping algae from coral, thus resembling a parrot’s beak. Despite lacking verbal skills these fish are incredible. Approximately 100 species occupy reefs, rocky coastlines and eelgrass meadows in tropical and subtropical waters. Many species are sequential hermaphrodites, beginning life as females and then changing into males after reaching a certain size. While female reproductive success is limited by the number of eggs she can produce, male reproductive success can be much higher if he can fertilize the eggs of many females.  So if a parrotfish transitions into a large male, and can control access to numerous females, he will enjoy greater reproductive success than if he had remained a female.

C. spilurusBrettTaylor

Two Chlorurus spilurus parrotfish show off their teeth and colors.  The large colorful fish on the right is a male, while the smaller darker fish to his left is a female. Credit: Brett Taylor.

Phenotypic plasticity describes the ability of an individual with a particular genetic makeup to vary in a variety of traits (such as what it looks like, or how it behaves) in response to different environmental conditions. About 15 years ago, Nick Gust’s PhD research on tropical reef fish revealed that tremendous variation in parrotfish traits existed over a distance of a few kilometers. But what causes this variation? When funding became available, Brett Taylor jumped at the opportunity to pinpoint the causes, focusing on the diverse parrotfish community in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).


Eastern slope of the Great Barrier Reef hosts a diversity of fish and coral species. Credit: Brett Taylor.

Taylor and his colleagues surveyed 82 sites within 31 reefs across 6 degrees of latitude in the northern GBR. To standardize data collection, divers, armed with a multitude of cameras and GPS devices, swam at a standardized rate (about 20 meters/minute) for 40 minutes per survey, recording each parrotfish along a 5 m wide swath. They collected data about the habitat and the environment, about the physical traits of each individual parrotfish (such as size and sex), and about the type and abundance of parrotfish and their predators present at each site.


Researcher takes notes while conducting a dive.  Credit Kendra Taylor.

The researchers wanted to identify what factors influenced growth rate, maximum body size, and the size at sex change, and how these factors related to the parrotfish mating system. Four species of parrotfish were sufficiently abundant across the GBR to allow researchers to do this type of analysis.


Four parrotfish species  abundant along exposed outer shelf (yellow sites) and protected inner shelf (blue) regions of the Great Barrier Reef. Males are larger and more colorful.

The GBR varies structurally across a relatively small spatial scale of 40 – 100 km, with outer shelf regions (eastern) exposed to wave action, and inner shelf regions (western) relatively protected. All four species tended to change sex at a larger size in protected sites than they did at exposed sites. However, the differences are only compelling for two of the species: C. spilurus and S. frenatus. There were fewer data points for the other two species, so it is possible (but unknown) that they too would show a more pronounced trend if more data were available.


Proportion terminal phase (sex-changed males) in relation to body size (measured to the fork of the tail) in exposed (yellow) and sheltered (blue) sites.

Not surprisingly, parrotfish grew larger in protected areas. Presumably, less wave action provided a more benign environment for rapid growth, both of parrotfish and their preferred food items (algae growing on rocks and coral).


Standardized maximum size (Lmax) attained by parrotfish in sheltered vs. exposed sites.

The researchers were somewhat surprised that most other factors, such as latitude, coral cover, sea surface temperature, and predator abundance, had very little effect on the size at sex change. Rather, the size at sex change appears to be strongly influenced by the local size distribution. In protected habitats, parrotfish grow large and change sex at a large size, while in exposed habitats, parrotfish are smaller, and change sex at a smaller size.

But sex is never simple. Nick Gust’s PhD research showed that C. spilurus had different patterns of sexual allocation in protected vs. exposed areas. In protected areas, the mating system is haremic, with a large male defending a territory and servicing a harem of females. In exposed areas, the mating system is mixed; there still are large territorial males with their harems, but they compete with many more small males, and group spawning is much more prevalent. Theoretically, the presence of these small males may make it less worthwhile for a female to transition into a male, and may influence the optimal size for transitioning in exposed reefs. Given that we still don’t know the mating system details of the other parrotfish in this study, it will be fascinating to see if they too show similar patterns of haremic vs. mixed mating systems in relation to habitat structure.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Taylor, B. M., Brandl, S. J., Kapur, M., Robbins, W. D., Johnson, G., Huveneers, C., Renaud, P. and Choat, J. H. (2018), Bottom-up processes mediated by social systems drive demographic traits of coral-reef fishes. Ecology 99(3): 642-651. doi:10.1002/ecy.2127. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.