Painted Sweetlips and quiz!

A strong contender for the ‘fish with the sexiest name’ award, the sweetlips are a big family of around 140 species, many of which are very pretty. If you’ve ever dived much in tropical reefs you will probably recognise these fairly large and unmistakeable spotted or stripey fish. They do indeed have big lips, and big doe eyes as well, giving them a bit of a dopey look. Here are some I spotted in the Philippines:

Left: Lined Sweetlips at Tubbataha Reefs; Right: Ribbon Sweetlips at Kerikite Island (and spot the odd one out — it’s a Painted Sweetlips)

In Hong Kong waters we have a few resident species of sweetlips. They are shyer and less flashy than the tropical species and a 2013 fish survey concluded that three out of the four local species they recorded were either ‘uncommon’ or ‘rare’. The one common species which local divers are most likely to be familiar with is the Painted Sweetlips, diagramma pictum (Chinese: 少棘胡椒鯛 or 細鱗). Here it is, in Hong Kong, in low vis:


This fish can be spotted in coral, rocky and sandy areas as well as around artificial reef structures: basically, there’s a good chance of sighting one at the common dive sites in Hong Kong. I have spotted them at Port Island 赤洲, Hoi Ha Wan 海下灣, Shelter Island 牛尾洲 and many other spots. It feeds on benthic invertebrates and small fish and can apparently grow to a metre long (though that seems pretty unlikely here; the largest adults I have seen must have been about 40 cm). It is considered tasty, and is the largest food fish still found in reasonable numbers in Hong Kong waters.

The most remarkable thing about the painted sweetlips (and other species too) is that it undergoes a dramatic colour change as it grows. While the adult fish is silvery with yellow spots and black-edged fins, the juvenile is remarkably different, with bright yellow and black horizontal stripes. As the fish gets older the yellow fades to white and the black stripes change to brown and break up into spots. The juveniles often lurk in the shelter of rocks or coral and swim in an undulating pattern, supposedly mimicking a toxic flatworm. Since they tend to stay in the same spot, they are easier to observe than the adults.


The gallery below, taken in Hong Kong, shows the different growth stages and patterns of the painted sweetlips, from juvenile to adult, but in a random order. Can you put photos A–F in order of age from youngest to oldest? Leave your answers in a comment below!

Update: you can now check if you were right in this post.

Painted sweetlips photo gallery: click to enlarge
Fishy resources

Aside from a couple of books, I looked up this fish on the HK marine fish database and also on the new ERC HK Fish Android app.

I got the idea for making this post into a little quiz from the prolific blogger Indah Susanti whose underwater postings I follow here. Thanks Indah!

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Categories: HK marine lifeTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. Sweetlips quiz – D B E A F C….. but difficult to decide between D and B (for youngest)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Papa et moi on a fait le quiz des ‘sweetlips’ mais c’était difficile de décider lequel était le plus jeune entre les deux premiers!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Emilie, thank you for linking me! How fun this quiz 🙂 Great idea about the phase of the fish age! I am working hard to guess it 😀 so here is my answer:
    Wishing you a great weekend! Looking forward to the answer 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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