It’s hard to decide which of the colorful parrot fish’s many unique characteristics is most remarkable.
There’s its diet, which consists primarily of algae extracted from chunks of coral ripped from a reef. The coral is pulverized with grinding teeth in the fishes’ throats in order to get to the algae-filled polyps inside. Much of the sand in the parrot fish’s range is actually the ground-up, undigested coral they excrete.
There’s its gender, which they can change repeatedly throughout their lives, and their coloration and patterns, which are a classification nightmare, varying greatly, even among the males, females, and juveniles of the same species.
Finally, there are the pajamas. Every night, certain species of parrot fish envelope themselves in a transparent cocoon made of mucous secreted from an organ on their head. Scientists think the cocoon masks their scent, making them harder for nocturnal predators, like moray eels, to find.
Close relatives of the wrasse, parrot fish are abundant in and around the tropical reefs of all the world’s oceans. There are about 80 identified species, ranging in size from less than 1 to 4 feet (30 to 120 centimeters) in length.
Their meat is rarely consumed in the United States, but is a delicacy in many other parts of the world. In Polynesia, it is served raw and was once considered “royal food,” only eaten by the king.