Queen Parrotfish Scarus vetula
The Queen Parrotfish is a medium sized parrotfish that lives on coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea and its adjacent waters. The parrotfishes are named for their powerful beaks, formed from the fusing of the teeth into biting plates. The largest Queen Parrotfish are brightly colored (blue, green, orange, etc.), and the species gets its name from a series of markings on the head, above the eye, that resemble a crown. Juveniles and young adults are a somewhat drab, brownish color.
Queen Parrotfish are herbivores that graze the reef, using their beaks to scrape plants and algae from the reef surface. Oftentimes, this habit involves ingesting corals and other animals as well, but they are primarily herbivorous. Through their feeding strategies, parrotfishes create much of the sand around a reef. Upon eating some species of calcareous algae (i.e., algae with a hard skeleton), parrotfishes digest the soft parts and pass the hard parts, which essentially take the form of sand. Through their constant grazing, Queen Parrotfish serve an important ecological function on coral reefs. By removing algae, they open up space on hard surfaces for corals to attach and grow.
This species reproduces through a behavior known as broadcast spawning, where females release eggs and males release sperm into the water column above the reef, at the same time. This method increases the likelihood that eggs will become successfully fertilized and that fertilized eggs will not be eaten by egg predators on the reef surface. Interestingly, all Queen Parrotfish hatch as females. As they mature, the largest individuals become male. Only during that transition do they lose their drab, brown color and become the brightly colored individuals that we think of when imagining this species. Ironically, the “crowns” that give the Queen Parrotfish its common name are only found on males!
Several species of large bony fishes and sharks eat Queen Parrotfish both as juveniles and adults. At night, this species is known to find protected places on the reef to sleep. Before sleeping, individuals of this species surround their bodies with a cocoon-like structure of mucus that provides them some protection from predators (via its bad taste and its likelihood of waking up the parrotfish if touched).
Queen Parrotfish are fished by artisanal fishers throughout their range and often fraudulently marketed as grouper. As they are herbivorous, these fish typically do not take a baited hook, so fishers generally target them via spearfishing. This method can be almost too effective, and in some areas, the Queen Parrotfish has been mostly depleted. Furthermore, since all of the largest, most colorful individuals are male, fishing can alter the sex ratio of a population or reduce the size at which the largest females change to male. These changes to population dynamics can affect this species’ ability to successfully and fruitfully reproduce. Recognizing the important role that Queen Parrotfish and other parrotfishes play in opening up space for new corals, some countries around their range have offered them some legal protection. Even with the fishing pressure that Queen Parrotfish experience and their depletion in some areas, scientists believe the species to be of least concern across its entire range. It is not currently vulnerable to extinction.
- Distribution warm temperate and tropical western Atlantic Ocean from Florida (and Bermuda) to Brazil and into the Gulf of Mexico
- Ecosystem/Habitat coral reefs
- Feeding Habits herbivore
- Conservation Status least concern
- Taxonomy Order Labriformes (wrasses and relatives), Family Labridae (wrasses and parrotfishes)