Like all the leopard wrasses, this wrasse has a distinctive spotted ‘leopard’ patterning, giving rise to its descriptive names!

This wrasse is not only known as the Leopard Wrasse, but also as the Blackspotted Wrasse and the Guinea Fowl Wrasse. Pictured above are female specimens of the Leopard Wrasse. Like all of the wrasses of the Macropharyngodon genera, the Leopard Wrasses are born as females. If there is no male present, one female will become male and the color pattern changes. Adult male patterning is more streamlined; having an orange-red body with dark green spots, lines on the head, and a dark ‘ear’ spot.

Once adjusted to aquarium life the Leopard Wrasse, Blackspotted Wrasse or Guinea Fowl Wrasse is a wonderful peaceful community fish that can even be housed with others of the same genus. This is also one of the few wrasses that can be kept with its own species. In both cases however, they are harmonious as long the mix is all females with just one male.

Though they do not bother corals or other fish, the Leopard Wrasse is not a fish for the inexperienced. Like all the wrasses of the genus Macropharyngodon, this wrasse can do quite well in a reef setting designed for them but they will fair poorly in all other types of marine environments. Due to their specialized eating habits and nature, these wrasses should only be attempted by advanced aquarists as they are very difficult to establish. They are not forgiving and can end up deceased in a short period of time after being added to your tank.

In his article Fish Tales: The Leopards of the Reef, author Henry C. Schultz III advises that these wrasses be examined before purchase (see Availability below) and that specialized care is followed to
acclimate and ultimately keep these fish successfully, (see Maintenance difficulty below). He also says
they tend to have intestinal worms and are prone to typical marine fish illness.

The Leopard Wrasses have a variety of curious behaviors. They are on Indo-Pacific time, so don’t freak if their sleeping habits are a little odd at first. Also as a protection in their natural habitat, they perform a little dance that is really strange to a possible predator. Often this dance antic works to the point the predator basically thinks the fish is nuts and moves on. If that tactic doesn’t work then the local sandbar will provide a perfect place for escape, and a puff of sand is the only indication the wrasse is “down under”.

Burrowing into the sand is their favorite sleeping arrangement. Some say you can set your watch by their bedtime! In the morning, they poke their head out to make sure the coast is clear and then they will fully emerge. When first emerging, they will be a little on the loopy side until they get their bearing, up to 10 minutes later. Throughout the day they are constantly foraging for food on live rock with their canine teeth.

Scientific Classification

Species: meleagris

Leopard Wrasse – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Expert
Aquarium Hardiness:Difficult to Impossible
Minimum Tank Size:50 gal (189 L)
Size of fish – inches:5.9 inches (14.99 cm)
Temperature:75.0 to 83.0° F (23.9 to 28.3&deg C)
Range ph:8.1-8.4
Diet Type: Carnivore

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Leopard Wrasse, Blackspotted Wrasse, or Guinea Fowl Wrasse, macropharyngodon meleagris was described by Valenciennes in 1839.  This is one of 10 species in this genus, Macropharyngodon which is Green for “great” (makros), “pharynx” (pharyngx) and “teeth (odous).  They have several common names, including:  Blackspotted Wrasse, Eastern Leopard Wrasse, Guinea Fowl Wrasse, Leopard Wrasse, Reticulated Wrasse, Vermiculated Wrasse and Wrasse.  At one time, the male, which is very different than the female in coloring, was once thought to be a different wrasse and was called M. pardalis.

They are found in the Indian Ocean from Cocos-Keeling Island to the Marquesas and Pitcairn Islands, then north to southern Japan and south to southeastern Australia.  They prefer sub tidal reef flats, outer lagoons and seaward reefs with mixed sand, coral and rubble substrate.  Leopard Wrasses can also be found in turbulent waters of the reef crest.  They are found from 10 to 91 feet (3 – 28 meters) feeding on gastropods, foraminiferans and other hard-shelled prey such as copepods and amphipods wherein they ingest the filamentous algae that these critters are hiding in.  Enjoying the local sand bars for quick getaways, they are often found singly or in small groups consisting of females with one dominant male.

The Leopard Wrasse is on the IUCN Red List for Least Concerned due to their distribution within protected marine areas. 

Ornate Leopard Wrasse, (M. ornatus):  Similar in shape and often confused with the Leopard Wrasse, the Ornate has orange-red with greenish yellow spots which are edged in blue or black but the orange red is only on the front part of the body.  The head has irregular bands and dots and a black spot behind the gill plate.

  • Scientific Name: Macropharyngodon meleagris
  • Social Grouping: Varies – Singly or in small groups consisting of females with one dominant male
  • IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern – Range is within protected marine areas.
Leopard Wrasse
Image Credit: Vojce, Shutterstock


The Leopard Wrasse is very compressed laterally, with a deep yet elongated body and pointed nose and mouth.  This direction of the mouth aids in foraging for living food within the sand and rock.  They have very powerful canine teeth they use to extract and crush prey.  Males are males orangish red with greenish-yellow spots which are edged in blue and black.  Their head has bands and spots. Females look very different, having a teal turquoise green maze of squiggly lines, divided by dark “leopard” type spotting in a dark mauve to brown.   Females have yellow on the anal fin and pelvic fins and the large terminal male can have irregular lines on the face and head.  The fins follow the pattern of the body, however the tail fin is clearish with dark mauve spots.  Juvenile Leopard Wrasses have a whitish to light green background with numerous small brown to black spots, thus showing more background coloring

The Leopard Wrasse can grow to 5.9″ (15 cm) and are mature at 4″ (10 cm).   In captivity, these wrasses can live 5 to 8 years under proper tank set up and care.

  • Size of fish – inches: 5.9 inches (14.99 cm) – Mature at 4″ (10 cm)
  • Lifespan: 6 years – Mature at 1.8 years and may live 5 to 8 years in captivity.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

Due to their specialized eating habits and nature, the Leopard Wrasse should only be attempted by advanced aquarists as they are very difficult to keep. The key to successfully keeping this wrasse is ultimately a well-established reef tank, with lots of food (micro-crustaceans) flourishing in the environment. Do not put with other fish that will compete for food like Mandarinfish.  Resist the temptation to “show” off your newly acclimating wrasse by hunting for it in the sand or rock work as this will add to the stress.  They will stay hidden for a few days and should be left completely alone. Also, they tend not to tolerate copper.  On a positive note, they rarely contract dinoflagellate or protozoan infections.

When special ordering, request 2″ of sand for shipment and make sure you see the fish come out of the box with the sand in the bag. Put down a deposit and observe the fish for a few days before purchasing.

Some things to check for when obtaining these fish:

  1. How does the fish swim? If it is swimming aimlessly in circles its chance of survival is slim. Also, avoid any fish pacing in front of the dealers tank. The fish should be foraging, constantly and methodically examining each piece of live rock for food.
  2. How is the mouth and body? Due to the desire of this fish to dive into the sand when scared, the shipping bag should have 2″ of sand. This will help minimize mouth damage from the fish diving. Examine the mouth for any abrasions or cuts or any damage at all. Excessive damaged mouth can prevent the poor fish from eating and possibly lead to starvation. Check the body for any ulcers, cuts, etc.
  3. Does it eat when fed? Have the dealer feed the fish, preferably with live mysis or black worms. More than likely it will not eat frozen food as of yet, due to its eating habits in the wild. If the fish eats the live food, and especially if it eats frozen, then take it home. If not eating, this doesn’t mean to necessarily rule it out, it may be a result of the having just arrived. They often won’t eat for up to a week after shipping.

   Some guidelines for establishing these fish once they pass the above criteria:

  • Before purchasing this wrasse, it is recommended that you have an established quarantine tank (about 3 months is suggested). It needs to have live rock supporting micro-crustaceans such as copepods, and a 3″ sand bed.
  • The quarantine period needs to be about 4 to 6 weeks.
  • They must be treated for worms, because as many as 75 to 85% of these wrasses arrive with intestinal worms. Treat with 250 mg (.0089 ounces) of Piperazine, praziquantel, or levamisole per 100g of food (3.5 ounces) each day for 10 days. Another option is niclosamide at 500 mg (.0176 ounces) per 100g of food (3.5 ounces) for 10 days. You may have to gut load live foods to administer the medication.
  • During this quarantine period, you can train the wrasse into accepting prepared foods.
  • After the quarantine period transfer the wrasse to its new aquarium. Do this at night using a couple nets to capture the wrasse. Do not use a a container for capturing as you do not want your just awoken wrasse darting into the sides and damaging it’s mouth. It will be under the sand and generally they pick one favorite spot. Use one net to probe on one side of his spot and the other to catch the fish as It dashes out, away from the probing net in panic.
  • Once netted, transfer it to the main aquarium. If the two aquariums are not the same temperature, you may need to temperature acclimate the wrasse first. To do this, deposit the fish into a container or plastic bag. Float the container in the main aquarium for about 10 to 15 minutes, then release the wrasse into the aquarium.
  • The fish will dart straight down into the sand bed and may not be seen for several days.
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult to Impossible
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Expert
Leopard wrasse in the tank
Image Credit: Vojce, Shutterstock

Foods and Feeding

The Leopard Wrasse, Blackspotted Wrasse, or Guinea Fowl Wrasse are carnivorous. In the wild they mostly eat small invertebrates such as foraminiferans (small shelled protozoa) and snails, which they pick from the reef with their canine teeth, then use their pharyngeal teeth to pulverize. They also eat small amounts of copepods and amphipods.

Provide your new wrasse with live foods such as feeder shrimp and live black worms. Slowly introduce them to mussel meat, mysis, krill and plankton. Feed several times a day. Try to gut load the live foods with vitamin preparations for marine fish, and soak prepared foods in the vitamins. An ongoing source of natural prey can be supplied with a productive refugium as well.

  • Diet Type: Carnivore
  • Flake Food: Occasionally
  • Tablet / Pellet: Occasionally
  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Most of Diet – On live rock and from refugium. Also will eat live black worms and gut filled mysis shrimp.
  • Meaty Food: All of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Several feedings per day – Feed at least 2ce per day, even in a mature tank.

Aquarium Care

Normal water changes at 10% biweekly or 20% monthly. During quarantine period, use the main tank water for water changes into the quarantine tank.

For more information see, Marine Aquarium Basics: Maintenance

  • Water Changes: Bi-weekly – 20%

Aquarium Setup

House in a tank that is at least 50 gallons and 4 feet long.  Rock work is more important than tank size with this fish, similar to a Mandarinfish.  This fish needs to have lots live rock producing its natural habitat foods (micro-crustaceans) to ensure an easy transition to captive life.  Do not house in a nano tank.  While a 2″ to 3″ sand bed is will increase their chance for survival, a tank without sand can also work, and the  Leopard Wrasse will just hide within the rock work at night instead.  They are fine with any lighting and do best .  In both tanks, a very high output refugium is critical, especially if it is a bare bottom.  Using a tight fitting lid lid is a good idea as they may jump.  Leopard Wrasses, being so compressed and thin, have been known to weave in and out of overflow box teeth, only to get sucked in, so be sure to protect them by using plastic mesh over those openings.  The bottom of the tank is where they are usually found, however they are not adverse to occupying all levels of the aquarium.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gal (189 L) – Should also be 4 feet long.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Live Rock Requirement: Typical Plus Hiding Places – Mature live rock with microfauna.
  • Substrate Type: Sand – Or bare. No crushed coral.
  • Lighting Needs: Any
  • Temperature: 75.0 to 83.0° F (23.9 to 28.3&deg C)
  • Breeding Temperature: – unknown
  • Specific gravity: 1.023-1.025 SG
  • Range ph: 8.1-8.4
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Any
  • Water Region: All – Will spend some time at the bottom
Blackspotted female Leopard wrasse
Image Credit: Vojce, Shutterstock

Social Behaviors

 The Leopard Wrasse can be kept alone, in male females pairs or groups, though the tank must be very large to sustain more than one.  They may be kept with their own genus (Macropharyngodon), and then only if one fish is male and the rest are female. Two males will kill each other.

House only with peaceful fish.  Even semi-aggressive fish will harass them, such as dottybacks, wrasses from the Pseudchelinus, Halichoeres and Thalassoma genus, pygmy angelfish and hawkfish.  They should be added first and allowed to adjust for several months before adding semi-aggressive fish (aside from the ones listed above).  Do not house with puffers, scorpionfish, groupers or other fish large enough to eat them. Also avoid slow, methodical feeders such as seahorses or pipefish. Do not house with Mandarinfish unless the tank is very large and there is enough food to go around. They are reef safe, and will not bother the corals.

Small juvenile Leopard Wrasses may fall victim to large boxer shrimp, larger hermit crabs, arrow crabs and cancrid crabs.  They will eat copepods and amphipods which should be replenished regularly.

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Sometimes – Only one male with 1 or more females.
    • Peaceful fish (gobies, dartfish, assessors, fairy wrasses): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (anthias, clownfish, dwarf angels): Monitor – Pygmy Angelfish are too aggressive. Add Black Leopard Wrasse before any semi-aggressive fish.
    • Threat
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (tangs, large angels, large wrasses): Monitor – Less dominant tangs like the Convict and Kole Tangs should be okay yet added after.
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (lionfish, groupers, soapfish): Threat
    • Monitor – May be okay with Mandarinfish if there is plenty of natural foods.
    • Anemones: Safe
    • Mushroom Anemones – Corallimorphs: Safe
    • LPS corals: Safe
    • SPS corals: Safe
    • Gorgonians, Sea Fans: Safe
    • Leather Corals: Safe
    • Soft Corals (xenias, tree corals): Safe
    • Star Polyps, Organ Pipe Coral: Safe
    • Zoanthids – Button Polyps, Sea Mats: Safe
    • Sponges, Tunicates: Safe
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Monitor – Juvenile leopards may be eaten by larger crabs. They will eat very small snails.
    • Starfish: Safe
    • Feather Dusters, Bristle Worms, Flatworms: Safe
    • Clams, Scallops, Oysters: Safe
    • Copepods, Amphipods, Mini Brittle Stars: Monitor – Will decimate copepods and amphipods if the supply is not maintained by a refugium.

Sex: Sexual differences

Adult male patterning is more streamlined; having an teal turquiose green body that looks like a maze, with dark mauve centers and a dark ‘ear’ spot.  Females are a pale green with smaller brown to black spots, thus showing more of the pale green base color.

Breeding / Reproduction

 In their natural environment males and females will dart up into the water column 2 to 3 feet at a time and deposit sperm and eggs. The current then takes the fertilized eggs out to a safe area of the ocean.

They have not been bred in captivity. 

  • Ease of Breeding: Unknown

Fish Diseases

   It is possible that these leopard wrasses may suffer from internal worms and it is common practice to de-worm them during quarantine.  The best medication for deworming is fenbendazole, which can be obtained by a veterinarian.  Another is Pipzine by Aquatronics.  Add this medication to their food.  Treat with 250 mg (.0089 ounces) of Piperazine, praziquantel, or levamisole per 100g of food (3.5 ounces) each day for 10 days. Another option is niclosamide at 500 mg (.0176 ounces) per 100g of food (3.5 ounces) for 10 days. You may have to gut load live foods with this medication mixed with food to get into the wrasse if they will not yet eat prepared foods

Leopard Wrasse fish
Image Credit: Vojce, Shutterstock


   The Leopard Wrasse is only occasionally available.  They are sometimes available on the internet or as a special ordered through a pet store.  Internet prices are around $40.00 to $50.00 (USD) for a 1″ to 3.5″ female and up to $60.00 (USD) for a 3″ to 4″ male.  (June, 2015)

   For success in keeping this wrasse, follow the methodical procedure described
in Maintenance difficulty above.

  • Animal-World References: Marine and Reef
  • Reefkeeping
    Fish Tales by Hendry C. Schultz III
    The Leopards of the Reef
    Reefkeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC-Copyright © 2008 All rights reserved
    by Bob Goemans
    © 2012 Bob Goemans. All rights reserved
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