The Caribbean Sea is renowned for its crystal-blue waters and colorful fishes and because I am a lover of such beauty I spent as much time among this living brilliance as I possibly could. While the fish in this beautiful place are a riot of color, so are the Caribbean’s coral reefs, vibrant sponges, and colorful crustaceans.
Few living creatures can match fishes, however, in the art of lightning-fast color changes. Therefore, I’m going to introduce you to a few of these colorful denizens, and then spend a bit of time telling you how they do what they do.
Five Colorful Caribbean Fish
1. The Rainbow Parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia)
These colorful giants are the largest herbivorous fishes in the Atlantic. Males can grow as large as 1.2 meters (nearly four feet). Like many of the reef fish in the Caribbean, these fish are iridescent and sparkling colors of green, blue, and orange ripple across their bodies. Their fins are orange with deep green streaks, and when you watch one of these amazing fish, as I have, it’s very much like watching a living rainbow.
They are called parrotfish for a good reason.
Parrotfish are equipped with a beak that vaguely resembles a parrot’s beak, and they use it to scrape algae and other bits of plant material off of coral reefs, Arkive reports. These fish perform an essential function by keeping coral reefs pristine and preventing diseases from spreading among the coral.
Range: Rainbow parrotfish are found in the western Atlantic, from Florida, Bermuda, and the Bahamas to Argentina.
2. Spanish Hogfish (Bodianus rufus)
Many fishes love to hang around a large reef wall, which is exactly where I found these critters. The ones I observed were often a rich royal blue color on their back and sides and bright yellow underneath. Hanging around the gorgonians (corals that resemble candelabras) and box corals, these fish were truly striking to look at. Their colors can vary widely. In deeper waters that royal blue coloring is often replaced by a deep red.
These fish love to feed on brittle sea stars, crustaceans, sea urchins, and mollusks, The Georgia Aquarium reports. As juveniles, Spanish hogfish act as cleaners for other Caribbean fishes by feeding on parasites attached to their gills or tailfins. At their largest, they are about 40 cm (16 inches) long. They can be found at depths ranging from one to 70 meters (three to 230 feet).
3. Smooth Trunkfish (Lactophrys triqueter)
This cute, rather oddly-shaped fish is common in the Caribbean and can be found along coral or rocky reef walls where it feeds upon shrimps, crabs, snails, sea urchins, sea stars, sea cucumbers, sessile (swimming) worms, sea squirts, and bryozoans.
Oh, those lips!
They are found in the western Atlantic, from Massachusetts to Brazil, the Smithsonian Tropical Institute reports. Smooth trunkfish can be found at depths between two to 50 meters. Reaching a length of 30 cm (not quite 12 inches) these permanently duck-lipped fishes feature white spots on a dark brown background. Because they are a bit on the boxy side, they aren’t the fastest swimmers in the Caribbean, but like a lot of reef fish they are inquisitive and will peek out at you from the protection of the reef.
4. Queen Angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris)
You might think a fish festooned with such riotous color would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb but this work’s in this fish’s favor. That’s because coral reefs abound in colorful sponges and corals, meaning that the queen angelfish is camouflaged, National Geographic reports. My husband and I have spent quite a lot of time around these beautiful but shy fishes. One time when we snorkeled in Punta Uva, Costa Rica, a very large queen angel came out to investigate us. It flushed gorgeous colors of vibrant yellow, red, purple, orange, and blue, putting on a dazzling display. It visited us numerous times as we snorkeled around the reef.
Queen angels are large as far as reef fish are concerned, growing to a length of 45 cm (18 inches). With their small beak-like mouths, they feed on sponges and algae, sea fans, jellyfish and soft corals. They are a popular aquarium fish, but fortunately, their wild populations appear to be stable.
These fish usually live alone or in pairs, and it’s thought they may be monogamous. When mating, queen angels touch bellies, releasing clouds of sperm and eggs. During just one spawning period, she may release as many as 10 million eggs.
Juveniles of this species are equally spectacular.
As you can see in the video below, juvenile queen angels are also colorful. These iridescent creatures act as cleaners, setting up cleaning stations in the seagrasses near the reef where larger fish come to have their parasites removed, The Denver Zoo reports.
5. Trumpetfish (Aulostomus maculatus)
The trumpetfish is quite comical looking, with its narrow, trumpet-shaped body and habit of hanging around upside-down. While this may seem odd, it’s the fish’s way of camouflaging itself to look like seagrass or a piece of coral. Swaying gently back and forth in the current, this relative of pipefish and seahorses, it can change from yellow to purplish brown with black bars quickly if it needs to camouflage itself, Oceana reports. With that long snout and duck-lipped mouth, they simply slurp their food (small fishes and marine invertebrates) right in before the little creatures know what’s happening.
Found in the western Atlantic ocean, trumpetfish range from southern Florida and Bermuda to the northeastern coast of South America, The Florida Museum reports. Trumpetfish can grow pretty large, to about 60 cm (23.6 inches long), but there are reports of specimens at least 100 cm (nearly 40 inches) long. Like it’s seahorse relatives, the male trumpetfish carries the eggs until they hatch into babies.
How do fish change colors?
Many fishes are quick color change artists. And that’s true for all the world’s oceans. Sometimes they do this as a response to threats, largely thanks to a sophisticated central nervous system, although sometimes hormones get involved as well, The Australian Museum reports. These color changes can vary according to the seasons, changes in a fish’s diet, the time of day or night, or even changes in the fish’s habitat.
Here’s what color changes look like in a queen angelfish:
Chromatophores and Iridiophores
These two different kinds of cells allow fish to change color rapidly. Chromatophores are located either under or above a fish’s scales and contain black, red, yellow, blue, white, and rarely, green pigment granules known as chromatosomes. And only one color is found per chromatophore. Color change happens when the chromatosomes are concentrated in the center of the chromatophore, or dispersed throughout the cell.
Iridiophores contain iridescent guanine crystals that reflect the colors of the reef in the same way that mirrors do. This is what gives fish their gorgeous silvery appearance.
The Caribbean is a living rainbow.
Snorkeling in these crystalline waters has been the most rewarding experience of my life because most sea creatures will come out to greet you. They might be shy, but overall, all of them are wild and unafraid. It is an amazing way to live, and the video below showcases the places where we used to snorkel.