Parrotfish are social and often swim in groups of several hundred fish, like this school in the Philippines.
Parrotfish are social and often swim in groups of several hundred fish, like this school in the Philippines.
Photograph by Tim Fitzharris / Minden Pictures


These colorful fish live in and around the tropical reefs of all the world’s oceans.

A bright flash of blue, pink, and green glides through the water. A three-feet-long parrotfish swims through a Caribbean coral reef searching for food. With its super-strong teeth, the fish tears off a hunk of coral, biting down to get at the nutrient-rich algae inside. Once the fish is full, it continues swimming through the reef, leaving a puff of fine white sand trailing behind it.

Common Name:
Scientific Name:
Group Name:
Average Life Span In The Wild:
Up to 7 years
1 to 4 feet

Champion chompers

Parrotfish nibble on algae growing on dead coral, but sometimes they accidentally swallow coral, too. Luckily, their powerful teeth are well equipped to grind up the crunchy coral in their tropical ocean habitat.

Each fish has about a thousand teeth lined up in 15 continuously growing rows. All those teeth are fused together to form a strong, beak-like structure. (The parrot-like “beak” is how the fish got its name.) Another set of teeth, called pharyngeal teeth, further breaks down the coral bits even more in the fish’s throat. Scientists analyzing the structure of these chompers discovered that they’re harder than a penny. They can also withstand 530 tons of pressure—that’s the same as the weight of about 88 elephants!

If a parrotfish does accidentally digest coral, they poop it out as sand. Since these swimmers spend about 90 percent of their time snacking on algae, they create a lot of sandy waste. One large parrotfish can grind up enough coral to create up to 800 pounds of soft, white sand a year. In fact, up to 70 percent of the white sand found on some beaches in Hawaii and the Caribbean is made of the ground-up coral that these fish leave behind.

Reef relief

Healthy coral reefs need space to grow and low levels of harmful algae. Luckily, parrotfish are common around tropical reefs all over the world, and their eating habits can help coral reefs stay healthy.

When the algae-eaters chomp down on coral, they create gaps in the reef that are filled in by new coral growth. The tropical fish also clear away excess algae, which can smother the coral and prevent it from growing. Without parrotfish, the whole coral ecosystem would collapse.

About 80 identified species of parrotfish live throughout in the world. Two types—the greenback and bumphead—are declining in population because of overfishing and habitat destruction.

But thanks in part to new marine protected areas, where it’s against the law to catch parrotfish, scientists expect these numbers to rise. These protected regions include the Gulf of Mexico; the Atlantic Ocean around the Bahamas; and the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, an island nation near Sri Lanka.

Snotty sleeping bags

Every night, certain species of parrotfish spend about an hour creating a near-invisible bubble of mucus to sleep in. (The mucus comes from glands behind their gills.) Scientists think these bubbles likely act as sort of protective sleeping bags to shield the fish from blood-sucking parasites and predators like moray eels and sharks.