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Semicossyphus pulcher - California sheephead

Geographic range:
Monterey Bay, California to Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico

Key features:
Male has a white chin, dark head, red midsection, and a dark tail. Females begin as a faint red and look more like males as they grow in size.

Similar species:

bay (rocky shore), kelp forest
Semicossyphus pulcher - California sheephead image


Primary common name:
California Sheephead
  ITIS code:
Synonymous name(s):
Labrus pulcher, Pimelometopon pulchrum
General grouping:
Bony fishes

Geographic Range
Range description:
Semicossyphus pulcher can be found from Monterey Bay, California to Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico. This fish also lives in the Gulf of California and off Guadalupe Island.
Northern latitude extent:
  Southern latitude extent:
East longitude extent:
  West longitude extent:

Intertidal Height
Lowest intertidal height:
0 meters OR 0 feet
  Highest intertidal height:
0 meters OR 0 feet
Intertidal height notes:

Subtidal Depth Range
Minimum depth:
0 meters OR 0 feet
  Maximum depth:
60 meters OR 199.8 feet
Subtidal depth notes:
Semicossyphus pulcher can be found from the shallow subtidal to 60 m in depth.

bay (rocky shore), kelp forest
Habitat notes:
Semicossyphus pulcher can be found from the shallow subtidal to 60 m in depth, though they most frequently occupy depths between 3 and 30 m. They most commonly occur over rocky bottoms, occupying reefs and kelp beds. Juvenile Semicossyphus pulcher can be found between 3 and 33 m depth.

Relative abundance:
Semicossyphus pulcher is most common off southern California and is uncommon north of Point Conception, California.

Species Description
General description:
Semicossyphus pulcher is a Wrasse, family Labridae in the order Perciformes, the perch-like fishes. The species name pulcher is Latin for beautiful.
Distinctive features:
Both male and female Semicossyphus pulcher have a fusiform, deep and compressed body with a steeply sloping forehead. However, the male's coloration is striking and quickly differentiates it from the female. The front half of the male's body is brick red and the rear and caudal fin are black and they have a prominent bump on their forehead. In contrast, the female's body is reddish brown to rosy red, though she can sometimes be very dark or have irregular bars on her body. Both sexes have a white chin and red or yellow eyes. All fish have large, thick canine teeth giving them a somewhat bucktoothed appearance. The dorsal fins are joined and extend from the pectoral fin insertion to the rear of the anal fin base and the caudal fin is almost square. Juvenile Semicossyphus pulcher are brick-red, salmon or gold colored on their sides with at least one white stripe at midside and large black spots on the fins and caudal peduncle. Juveniles also have large black spots on their pectoral, dorsal and caudal fins. Juvenile coloration lasts until they are about 10 cm in length.
Semicossyphus pulcher can grow to 91 cm in length with a weight of 16 kg.

Natural History
General natural history:
Like many members of the Wrasse family, Semicossyphus pulcher is hermaphroditic, changing sex from female to male. All are female until age 7 or 8 and then in most of the fish, the ovaries change to testes, and the fish then function as males for the rest of their lives. The sex change takes less than a year to complete. Rapidly growing fish become males sooner and those that grow very slow may not change sex at all. Fish from Guadalupe Island grow even slower and don't get as large as mainland ones. Overall, this species is a relatively slow growing fish and reaches 13 cm after one year and 46 cm after 10 — 20 years. Males have been aged to 53 years and females to 30.

Populations of Semicossyphus pulcher off of Southern California have declined because of fishing pressure and reduction of kelp beds. Also, because of the large size of adult males, they are sought after by spear fishermen and are now rare.

Young of the year Semicossyphus pulcher do not recruit to the northern part of their range unless they are carried north by warm, southerly currents as happens in El Nino years. In fact, some northern reefs only contain one size class since all of them settle the reef during the same year. Semicossyphus pulcher is active only during the day and sleep in caves in crevices at night. They are usually solitary fish, but may form small aggregations. Divers and fishers should note that their large teeth can cause serious bite wounds.
Giant Sea Bass, Stereolepis gigas, marine mammals, such as Harbor Seals, Phoca vitulina, and California Sea Lions, Zalophus californianus, and birds, like Bald Eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and Brandt's Cormorants, Phalacrocorax penicillatus, prey on Semicossyphus pulcher. Semicossyphus pulcher has historically been consumed by humans, as evidenced by the presence of their remains in middens, and still is. It is popular with anglers and spearfishers and there is also a small, steady commercial market with these fish taken incidentally in gillnets, lobster traps and by hook and line. As of recent years, a very lucrative live fish market has developed leading commercial fishermen to target this species by hook and line and selling them live to Asian markets and restaurants.
Semicossyphus pulcher's diet varies, though it primarily feeds on crustaceans, such as lobsters and crabs, echinoderms, like sea urchins, and mollusks, including snails, mussels, and octopus. They may also eat various worms.

Feeding behavior
Feeding behavior(s):
Feeding behavior notes:
Semicossyphus pulcher eats a lot of hard shelled or encrusting animals by smashing them with their strong teeth and jaws. They can also use their teeth to pry food from rocks.
July - September  
July to September: Female Semicossyphus pulcher mature at 4 years of age and change sex at around 8 years of age when they are about 30 cm. Spawning occurs in the summer and the eggs are pelagic. Each fish probably spawns several times.
Alden, P., F. Heath, R. Keen, A. Leventer, and W. Zomlefer. 2002. National Audubon Society Field Guide to California. A.A. Knopf, New York, NY.

Boschung, H.T., J.D. Williams, D.W. Gotshall, D.K. Caldwell, and M.C. Caldwell. 1998. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Fishes, Whales and Dolphins. A.A. Knoph, New York, NY. 848 p.

Eschmeyer, W.N., and E.S. Herald. 1983. A Field Guide to Pacific Coast Fishes of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA. 336 p.

Gotshall, D. 2001. Pacific Coast Inshore Fishes. Sea Challengers, Monterey, CA. 117 p.

Love, M. 1996. Probably more than you want to know about the fishes of the Pacific Coast. Really Big Press, Santa Barbara, CA. 381 p.

Data supplied by SIMoN Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
Anthopleura xanthogrammica - Giant green anemone

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