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
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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