Parrotfish are named for their “dentition,” or the organization of teeth in their mouths and throats. They are distinct from other fish, as is described in more detail below. Parrotfish also exhibit other interesting behaviors, such as encasing themselves in mucus and excreting sand. 


The parrotfish, also known by its scientific name, Scaridae, is a large fish that can grow from one to four feet in length. It is incredibly colorful, something that changes throughout their lives as they grow. There are a wide variety of colors and patterns, making classifying the fish very difficult. Parrotfish have blunted heads and deep bodies. There have been cited examples where parrotfish have weighed in at more than forty-five pounds or twenty kilograms. 

A Blue and Green Parrotfish
A colorful blue and green parrotfish by some coral

The parrotfish have tightly arranged teeth on the external surface of their jaws. These teeth create a beak-like shape that gives the fish their name. They can effectively use their “beaks” to scrape algae from coral and other surfaces. Parrotfish can also be arranged into three groups based on their feeding habits. There are scrapers, browsers, and excavators. The latter has the largest jaws that allow them to gouge into surfaces, leaving scars and contributing to bioerosion to the greatest degree. Scrapers are also capable of leaving scars on surfaces, but they are less powerful than excavators. Finally, there are browsers that feed primarily on grasses. 

The smallest species is the blue-lip parrotfish which only grows to around five inches in length. The largest species is the green humphead parrotfish which can reach close to five feet in length. 


Parrotfish are herbivores and spend most of their lives eating algae. Sometimes, they also feed on sessile and zooplankton. There are larger species that might also feet on coral, but most prefer algae-covered surfaces. But, the species that do eat coral can contribute to the degradation of coral reefs and bioerosion. They spend around 90% of their lives eating, according to the Nature Conservancy. 

Throughout their lives, their teeth grow continually. They get worn away by the parrotfish’s feeding methods and need to be replaced fairly often. There are more teeth in their throats as well. They ground their food between their teeth and digest the portions that are edible. When they excrete what they’ve eaten, they create small piles of sand that help create little islands and beaches. It’s believed that one parrotfish can create around 2,000 pounds of sand a year (Nature Conservancy). 

Green and pink parrotfish
Parrotfish, like this green and pink parrotfish, eat lots of algae


Most parrotfish live in and around the tropical ocean reeds of the world. They spend most of their lives around coral reefs. It’s believed that the fish are incredibly important to the environments they live in, playing a critical role in removing seaweed and sponges from coral. This has been cited as particularly true for the Great Barrier Reef.


Most species of parrotfish as sequential hermaphrodites. They begin as females and then change to males as their lives progress. It is the final, or terminal, stage of the process. There are some species that do not go through this process, though, starting and ending as males instead. Others are secondary gonochorists, meaning that some females remain female, but others change to male while still immature. When parrotfish change sex, they also experience a change in steroids. This means that their appearance and behavior both change. 

When reproducing, parrotfish release eggs into the water. These are buoyant and quite small. They float through the water, settling in coral and hatching. 

Orange and blue parrotfish
Most species of parrotfish start off as female and change to male


One of the several threats that impact parrotfish is the lemon shark. It is one of their main predators and one that is often a threat while the fish are feeding. 

Some parrotfish, interestingly, encase themselves in a cocoon of mucus at night. This is secreted from an organ in their head and is transparent. Scientists believe, as noted by National Geographic, that this is done in order to mask their scent from predators during the night. Specifically, moray eels.

Parrotfish, like most ocean creatures, are in some ways threatened by human beings. There are some commercial fisheries that seek out the largest species of parrotfish. Their meat is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world but is rarely consumed in the United States. Some countries, like Polynesia, serve it raw. For example, bump head parrotfish populations are also threatened due to overfishing. 

Parrotfish are at risk from the global climate crisis, changes in water temperature, and the general degradation of coral reefs.

Facts About the Parrotfish

  • Parrotfish change colors throughout their lives. 
  • They are named for the shape of their “beaks.” 
  • Some species incase themselves in mucus at night. 
  • Most parrotfish are herbivores. 
  • They live for around five to seven years. 


Can you eat parrotfish?

Yes, parrotfish are edible. But, most wildlife organizations suggest that eating parrotfish should be avoided due to the limited populations of some species and the crucial role the fish plays.

Does parrotfish poop sand?

Yes, the parrotfish poops sand. It’s estimated that a large parrotfish can produce 2,000 pounds of sand a year. In fact, Hawaii’s white-sand beaches are almost entirely created through parrotfish excrement. 

Is parrot fish aggressive?

Some species of parrotfish, like the Blood parrotfish, have developed a reputation for being aggressive. Generally, the fish is considered to be semi-aggressive. This means it’s not impossible to see aggressive behavior, but generally, they are peaceful. 

What do parrotfish like to eat?

Parrotfish like to eat the algae off coral reefs, something that is incredibly important for preserving coral reefs. They also eat seagrasses and other small plants and creatures.

Do parrotfish eat their babies?

Some species of parrotfish will eat inviable eggs. But this isn’t a habit that all parrotfish have. 

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