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Harlequin Sweetlips (Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides) - Reef Reality Episode 39

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Harlequin Sweetlips (Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides) - Reef Reality Episode 39

Reef Reality Episode Voice Over

The harlequin sweetlips is a large game fish that is also kept in aquariums.  They are a shy, peaceful species that spend most of their time hiding in rock crevices and caves, only coming out at night to feed. Juveniles have the ability to mimic the toxic flatworm in order to protect themselves from predation.  During their lifetime, they completely change colouring, from brown with white blotches to white with black spots. Their numbers are at risk from over-fishing.


Juvenile harlequin sweetlips are brown in colour, with large white splotches edged in darker brown all over their bodies.  They have fan-like fins. Juveniles measure approximately 3ins (7.5cm) in length.  Adult harlequins change colour completely, with white bodies and tails covered in small black spots, which become more numerous as the fish ages.  Adults can reach lengths of up to 28ins (72cm), although the average size for the species is more like 24ins (60cm).  The maximum recorded weight for an adult male is 7kg. They have a large mouth with plump lips, and their body is deeper than most other fish in this genus.

Regions & Habitat

Harlequin sweetlips are found in two main areas of the world. Firstly, the Malives and Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean; and secondly in the Western Pacific area, from Sumatra to Fiji and New Zealand, north to the Ryukuku Islands and south to Rowley Shoals.  They live in tropical climates, in marine waters at depths of up to 30m (110ft). Juveniles usually live under coral in fairly shallow waters. Adults are found in coral-rich areas of clear lagoons or on seaward reefs, in areas with plenty of over-hanging ledges, niches or caves.

Feeding & Behavior

Harlequin sweetlips are carnivores.  They eat other fishes, crustaceans and molluscs.  They only feed at night, and spend daylight hours keeping out of sight. They are very passive, and non-territorial.  As a defensive measure against would-be predators, juveniles swim with head pointing down and exaggerated fin movements, in order to mimic the toxic flatworm. Adults are solitary.

Vulnerability & Resilience

Vulnerability is moderate to high. Resilience is low – minimum population doubling time is between 4.5 and 14 years.

Red List Status

The harlequin sweetlips has not been evaluated for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


1)    Aquarium industry – harlequins are sold as aquarium fish. Some unscrupulous dealers catch them using drugs, which can actually kill them. Juveniles are often taken because of their attractive markings, but they do not usually adapt well to living in an aquarium (particularly if put in with aggressive species of fish) and often die quite quickly. Removing fish from the reefs decimates their numbers and puts the species at risk.

2)    Over-fishing – the harlequin sweetlips is a game fish, and the species is at danger of over-fishing. Some fishermen use dynamite as an easy way of catching them, which also kills other species and causes damage to the reefs.

3)    Pollution – the world’s oceans are becoming polluted thanks to chemicals from industry and agriculture seeping into the water table; oil spills and irresponsible garbage disposal.  Pollution endangers all marine species.

4)    Habitat destruction – coral reefs around the globe are being destroyed.  The main problems are erosion caused by tropical storms, coral ‘bleaching’ and damage caused by boats and tourists.

How to help

1)    Don’t contribute to pollution.  Use chemical-free cleaning agents, and don’t use toxic weedkillers or pest repellents.

2)    Donate money or time to help the work of marine conservation agencies.

3)    CLICK HERE for 40 Marine Conservation Tips - How YOU can Make a Difference!

Submitted by The Reef Reality Series on Oct 29, 2010