A Fish That Shapes The Reef

By Andrew E. Gray

Every three years, scientists from NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) visit Wake Atoll to survey corals, assess the fish populations, and collect oceanographic data for a long-term monitoring effort—the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (Pacific RAMP). Wake Atoll has clear water, healthy coral reefs, and is managed and conserved as part of the expansive U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. It has a healthy reef fish community with plentiful sharks, jacks, and groupers. As a fish research diver, it’s my kind of paradise. Sitting in the middle of the subtropical North Pacific Ocean, 1,500 miles east of Guam and about 2,300 miles southwest of Honolulu, it may be the most remote place I’ve ever been. But for me, and a few other scientists lucky enough to visit the island, there is one thing that makes Wake a special place: Bolbometopon muricatm, the Bumphead parrotfish.

Bumphead parrotfish

Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatm) at Wake Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

Bumphead parrotfish are an incredible and unique reef fish, differing from other parrotfish by their large size, appearance, diet, and by their ecological impact on coral reef ecosystems. There are a number of other parrotfish that sport a bump on their head, and these may be mistaken for a Bumphead parrotfish—that is until you actually see one. Bumpheads have a presence like no other fish on the reef and when they are around I can’t take my eyes off of them. The first thing I notice is their sheer size: growing to 4.2 feet long and up to a 100 pounds (that’s 130 cm and 46 kg for you scientists). Bumpheads are the world’s largest parrotfish and among the largest of all reef fish. When I get a little closer, I can’t help but focus on their incredible beaks. On coral reefs, all parrotfish species are tasked with the important job of keeping algae from overgrowing reef-building corals.

Corals chomped

Bumphead parrotfish chomp corals and help maintain the health and diversity of the reef ecosystem, Wake Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

Parrotfish bite and scrape algae off of rocks and dead corals with their parrot-like beaks; grind the inedible calcium carbonate (reef material made mostly of coral skeletons) which is excreted as sand back onto the reef. Larger parrotfish species can take small chunks out of the reef, removing algae and the occasional piece of coral. Bumphead parrotfish are unique in that they are continuously crunching large bites out of the reef, about half of it from live coral. In fact, that’s what they do most of the day. Bite the reef. Excrete sand. Repeat. Over the course of a year a single fish can remove over 5 tons of calcium carbonate from the reef! But by selectively eating fast growing coral species over slower growing species, they help maintain a more diverse coral reef ecosystem. Also, by munching down tons of dead corals every year each fish makes room for young corals to settle, grow and build up the reef. This means breaking down “dead reef” into sand rather than it breaking off in a storm and damaging other parts of the reef. And since Bumpheads often travel in groups, sometimes numbering into hundreds and traveling multiple kilometers in a day, this species can have quite an impact on the reef ecosystem. Bumphead parrotfish literally shape the reef.


Large bump on the head of a Bumphead parrotfish (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

Then, of course, there is the fish’s namesake, its bump. All Bumphead parrotfish sport a large protrusion on their forehead which is similar in function to a pair of horns on a bighorn sheep. The largest males have the biggest bumps and will occasionally use them as battering rams around spawning time, smashing headfirst into rivals in an attempt to show their dominance and retain territorial and breeding rights. This incredible behavior was observed by CREP scientists in 2009 and first documented and filmed by researchers at Wake in 2011. During these mating events, the parrotfish gather or aggregate around a spawning site and can number into the hundreds, an uncommon site anywhere in the world and one that I hope to see sometime at Wake.

Historically, Bumphead parrotfish were plentiful throughout much of the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea. In recent decades, fishing led to sharp declines in abundance and they are now only common in protected or very remote areas. Bumpheads have a few traits that make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing, which has led to local disappearances in many parts of their range. Bumphead parrotfish can live to be 40 years old; they do not reach sexual maturity until 5-8 years old and likely have low natural mortality as adults so there is not high natural turnover in the population. However, most detrimental to their survival in a human-dominated world is their aggregating behavior and preference for shallow water. Groups of Bumpheads could be easily netted, as they feed during the day, and at night sleeping parrotfish are easy targets for spear fishermen. With the introduction of scuba gear in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was a steep decline in Bumphead abundances as entire schools could be removed in a single night while they slept. Juvenile Bumpheads are also hard to find or study throughout much of their range and raises concerns that some adult populations are too far from juvenile habitats. This distance prevents new youngsters from entering the population to replace adults that have been caught. In areas where juveniles can be commonly found, such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, they are associated with mangrove, rubble, and sheltered lagoon habitats. And this is why Wake Atoll may be such a hotbed of Bumpheads.

Reef at Wake Atoll

Coral reef at Wake Atoll in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/James Morioka)

In addition to having a sizable healthy coral reef around the island, Wake Atoll has an expansive, sheltered lagoon. This may be the perfect habitat for the juvenile parrotfish and allows Wake to have a healthy, self-supplying population of Bumpheads. And since Wake is protected from fishing, it may be as close to a pristine home as the Bumphead parrotfish are going to encounter in today’s world. Wake actually has the highest concentration of Bumphead parrotfish in U.S. waters and possibly the world (although certain areas of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia also have very healthy adult populations). During my time at Wake Atoll, I had a number of chances to see them, from loose groups of just a few individuals, to a school of thirteen.

School too

School of Bumphead parrotfish at Wake Atoll (Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Andrew E. Gray)

As I write this, the NOAA Ship Hi‘ialakai heads west to Guam, our next survey site where I’ll be spending 8 days surveying reef fish. Bumpheads were once thought to be extinct around Guam due to overfishing, but there have been a few sightings by CREP and partners in the past few years, of both adults and juveniles. So while my expectations of encountering these giant bulbous-headed, coral-chomping fish are low, I sure hope I do, given how important they are to the natural function of coral reef ecosystems.

  1. Bellwood, D., & Choat, J. (2011). Dangerous demographics: the lack of juvenile humphead parrotfishes Bolbometopon muricatum on the Great Barrier Reef. Coral Reefs, 30(2), 549-554.
  2. Bellwood, D. R., Hoey, A. S., & Choat, J. H. (2003). Limited functional redundancy in high diversity systems: resilience and ecosystem function on coral reefs. Ecology Letters, 6(4), 281-285.
  3. Bellwood, D. R., Hoey, A. S., & Hughes, T. P. (2011). Human activity selectively impacts the ecosystem roles of parrotfishes on coral reefs. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1906
  4. Donaldson, T. J., & Dulvy, N. K. (2004). Threatened fishes of the world: Bolbometopon muricatum (Valenciennes 1840)(Scaridae). Environmental Biology of Fishes, 70(4), 373-373.
  5. Green, A. L., & Bellwood, D. R. (2009). Monitoring functional groups of herbivorous reef fishes as indicators of coral reef resilience: a practical guide for coral reef managers in the Asia Pacific Region: IUCN.
  6. Kobayashi, D., Friedlander, A., Grimes, C., Nichols, R., & Zgliczynski, B. (2011). Bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) status review. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-PIFSC-26. NOAA.
  7. Muñoz, R. C., Zgliczynski, B. J., Laughlin, J. L., & Teer, B. Z. (2012). Extraordinary Aggressive Behavior from the Giant Coral Reef Fish, Bolbometopon muricatum, in a Remote Marine Reserve. PLoS One, 7(6), e38120. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038120
  8. Munoz, R. C., Zgliczynski, B. J., Teer, B. Z., & Laughlin, J. L. (2014). Spawning aggregation behavior and reproductive ecology of the giant bumphead parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum, in a remote marine reserve. PeerJ, 2, e681.
  9. Sundberg, M., Kobayashi, D., Kahng, S., Karl, S., & Zamzow, J. (2015). The Search for Juvenile Bumphead Parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) in the Lagoon at Wake Island.

Reef monitoring at Wake Island: preliminary results from fish surveys

By Dione Swanson

After departing Honolulu on March 5, the NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai arrived at Wake Island on March 14. It was the first stop for PIFSC cruise HA-14-01, a Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (Pacific RAMP) expedition that also recently visited Guam and is currently focused on the southern islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. At Wake Island, staff members of the PIFSC Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) and partners conducted surveys of reef fish assemblages, coral populations, and benthic communities as well as deployed instruments and collected water samples to monitor effects of climate change and ocean acidification on coral reef ecosystems.

Our first 2 planned operational days on Wake Island were canceled because of poor weather conditions (strong winds and high seas). Relatively good weather returned by March 16, and we then were able to complete 4.5 days of small-boat operations before leaving for Guam on March 20. Over the course of our time at Wake Island, scientists accomplished the following field activities during a combined 229 dives: reef fish surveys at 45 Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) sites; benthic surveys at 20 REA sites; collection of 12 water samples and 1 benthic sample for analysis of microbial communities; retrieval of 7 subsurface temperature recorders (STRs), 6 autonomous reef monitoring structures (ARMs), 15 calcification accretion units (CAUs), and 1 sea-surface temperature (SST) buoy; installation of 4 National Coral Reef Monitoring Plan climate stations—each of which includes 3 ARMs, 5 CAUs, 5 bioerosion monitoring units, and 3 STRs; and collection of 20 water samples for analysis of dissolved inorganic carbon; and completion of 11 shallow-water conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) casts.

Highlights of our research dives at Wake Island included incredible water visibility (>45 m), high coral cover that consisted of abundant large colonies with low partial mortality, overall low prevalence of coral disease and bleaching, and large patches of soft corals. There were only a few sightings of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) and Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus).

Preliminary results from the surveys of reef fishes conducted by scuba divers at Wake Island (depth range: 0–30 m) during this cruise are provided in the below fish monitoring brief, which was issued on March 25 as PIFSC Data Report DR-14-007 (click here, to download a PDF file of this report). Wake Island is 1 of 7 islands, atolls, and reefs that make up the Pacific Remote Island Areas and, under the jurisdiction of the United States, are protected as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program
Fish monitoring brief: Pacific Remote Island Areas 2014

By Adel Heenan

About this summary brief

The purpose of this document is to outline the most recent survey efforts conducted by the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center as part of the long-term monitoring program known as the Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (Pacific RAMP). More detailed survey results will be available in a forthcoming annual status report.

Sampling effort

  • Ecological monitoring took place in the Pacific Remote Island Areas from March 16 2014 to March20 2014.
  • Data were collected at 45 sites. Surveys were conducted at Wake Island.
  • At each site, the fish assemblage was surveyed by underwater visual census and the benthic community was assessed.

Overview of data collected

Primary consumers include herbivores (which eat plants) and detritivores (which bottom feed on detritus), and secondary consumers are largely omnivores (which mostly eat a variety of fishes and invertebrates) and invertivores (which eat invertebrates).

Figure 1. Mean total fish biomass at sites surveyed.

Figure 1. Mean total fish biomass at sites surveyed.


Figure 2. Mean hard coral cover at sites surveyed.

Figure 2. Mean hard coral cover at sites surveyed.

Figure 3. Mean consumer group fish biomass (± standard error). Primary consumers are herbivores and detritivores, and secondary consumers are omnivores and invertivores.

Figure 3. Mean consumer group fish biomass (± standard error). Primary consumers are herbivores and detritivores, and secondary consumers are omnivores and invertivores.

Figure 4. Mean fish biomass per size class (± standard error). Fish measured by total length (TL) in centimeters (cm).

Figure 4. Mean fish biomass per size class (± standard error). Fish measured by total length (TL) in centimeters (cm).


Spatial sample design

Survey site locations are randomly selected using a depth-stratified design. During cruise planning and the cruise itself, logistic and weather conditions factor into the allocation of monitoring effort around sectors of each island or atoll. The geographic coordinates of sample sites are then randomly drawn from a map of the area of target habitat per study area. The target habitat is hard-bottom reef, the study area is typically an island or atoll, or in the case of larger islands, sectors per island, and the depth strata are shallow (0–6 m), mid (6–18 m), and deep (18–30 m).

Sampling methods

A pair of divers surveys the fish assemblage at each site using a stationary-point-count method (Fig. 5). Each diver identifies, enumerates, and estimates the total length of fishes within a visually estimated 15-m-diameter cylinder with the diver stationed in the center.

These data are used to calculate fish biomass per unit area (g m-2) for each species. Mean biomass estimates per island are calculated by weighting averages by the area per strata. Island-scale estimates presented here represent only the areas surveyed during this cruise. For gaps or areas not surveyed during this cruise, data from this and other survey efforts will generally be pooled to improve island-scale estimates.

Each diver also conducts a rapid visual assessment of reef composition, by estimating the percentage cover of major benthic functional groups (encrusting algae, fleshy macroalgae, hard corals, turf algae and soft corals) in each cylinder. Divers also estimate the complexity of the surface of the reef structure, and they take photos along a transect at each site that are archived to allow for future analysis.

Figure 5. Method used to monitor fish assemblage and benthic communities at the Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) sites.

Figure 5. Method used to monitor fish assemblage and benthic communities at the Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) sites.

About the monitoring program

Pacific RAMP forms a key part of the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP), providing integrated, consistent, and comparable data across U.S. Pacific islands and atolls. CRCP monitoring efforts have these aims:

  • Document the status of reef species of ecological and economic importance
  • Track and assess changes in reef communities in response to environmental stressors or human activities
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of specific management strategies and identify actions for future and adaptive responses

In addition to the fish community surveys outlined here, Pacific RAMP efforts include interdisciplinary monitoring of oceanographic conditions, coral reef habitat assessments and mapping. Most data are available upon request.

For more information

Coral Reef Conservation Program: http://coralreef.noaa.gov

Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center: http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/

CRED publications: http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/pubs/credpub.php

CRED fish team: http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/cred/fish.php

Fish team lead and fish survey data requests: ivor.williams@noaa.gov