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Semicossyphus pulcher

(California sheephead)


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Family : Wrasses ; Prefers rocky bottom , particularly in kelp beds . Often feeds on hard-shelled organisms such as sea urchins, mollusks, lobsters and crabs. Spawning occurs during the summer and the eggs are pelagic[1]. Lives to more than 50 years of age. Each individual functions first as a female but changes to a male at a length of about 30 cm. Flesh is white, of good quality and marketed fresh[1]. The large teeth can cause serious bite wounds.


Threat status

Common Names

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Click on the language to view common names.

Common Names in Danish:

Californisk F, Californisk fårehoved

Common Names in English:

California sheephead

Common Names in French:

Labre californien

Common Names in German:


Common Names in Mandarin Chinese:

美丽突额隆头鱼, 美麗突額隆頭魚

Common Names in Spanish:

Vieja Atardecer, vieja californiana, Vieja De Agua, Vieja de California


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Physical Description

Species Semicossyphus pulcher

Young sheephead have a typical female color pattern and shape--orange/pink with a white underside and a longer snout. Some have large black spots on their fins and in front of their tails. Adult males are black with a red midsection and a white chin. They also have red eyes and they develop a prominent fleshy bump on the forehead. Both males and females have large canine teeth, which protrude from the front of their mouths . Although the males and females have seemingly different characteristics at first, the females undergo a transformation , changing their shape and color, and ultimately changing into males at the age of seven or eight years.

Sheephead are very slow growing animals, and only reach the length of 18-20 inches by their tenth year. At that rate, they live long enough to grow over three feet in length and weigh about 30-40 lbs .


Sheephead can live up to fifty years providing their environment is undisturbed by pollution and overfishing .


California sheephead range from Monterey Bay , California to Isla Guadalupe, the westernmost island off Baja California, and into the Gulf of California. The young are not usually found in the northern end of the range, unless they have been carried there by strong warm currents , which appear during El Nino years. Sheephead, both adults and juveniles , prefer areas with rocky bottoms , particularly in kelp beds . Sheephead have been found in depths ranging from shallow subtidal waters to at least 88 m (289 ft ). Juveniles may be found from 3-70 m (10-200 ft).

Biome: Marine .

Ecology: Inhabits rocky reefs, especially where there are kelp beds . It occurs from 0–55 m depth (Eschmeyer et al. 1983) although around Cabo San Lucas (southern tip of Baja California) it occurs only in deeper water, 60–100 m (Cowen 1985). The fish tend to stay in the same reef and do not move around a lot , as shown by tag-recapture research (DeMartini et al. 1994).

Maximum age is at least 50 years (Fitch and Lavenberg 1971); such old individuals are likely to be very rare, however. The oldest fish of 276 collected from 4 unexploited populations throughout the range of the California sheephead was 21 years (Cowen 1990). Furthermore, the oldest individual of 470 fish taken off California and Mexico in the early 1970s was 20 years (Warner 1975).

Growth parameters vary among populations and studies (Alonzo et al. 2004). The value of k ranged from 0.007 to 0.068, while estimated Lsub>inf ranged from 45.46 to 464.16 (cm fork length). The k = 0.068 and Linf = 83.86 cm (maximum length ) were the best fit to the observed size and age data (Alonzo et al. 2004).

The age of sexual maturity and age of sex changeover (from female to male) shows great variation depending on location (Cowen 1990). For instance, at Santa Nicholas Island off California, the species becomes sexually mature (as females) at 5–6 years. Males did not predominate until ages 13–14. At the offshore Guadalupe Island, sexual maturity took place at 3–4 years with sexual transformation to males taking place at 5–6 years. Other locations in Mexico to the south of Guadalupe Island have populations that show ages of sexual maturity and changeover intermediate to the 2 aforementioned islands (Cowen 1990). Size of first sexual maturation varied from 12–18 cm SL in females and 18–28 cm SL in males, depending on location (Cowen 1990).

Size of 50% sexual maturation is approximately 20–30 cm, and sex change occurs roughly between 25 and 35 cm (Warner 1975, Cowen 1990).

In the area of Catalina Island, California, the Sheephead wrasse spawns from August to October, while sex change occurs during the winter months (Warner 1975, Cowen 1990). Individuals may spawn more than once a season . It has been estimated that females spawn approximately 86 times per year (about once every 1.3 days), batch fecundity of females is 5,755 eggs per spawning event, and there is no significant relationship between the number of eggs released per kilogram of body weight and total female body weight (average 15,000 eggs per kg ) (DeMartini et al. 1994).

Generation time was calculated from samples of 4 relatively unexploited populations taken throughout the main area of distribution off California and Baja California (Cowen 1985). This species is protogynous, changing sex from female to male. Observed adult sex ratios in California Sheephead vary from 3:1 mature females to males to 0.8:1 (Cowen 1990). In unexploited populations, it seems likely that the females are limiting, although in exploited populations where males (as the larger animals) are targeted, males may ultimately become the limiting sex. The generation time for each location was calculated using the length frequency data for the females of the 4 populations (Figure 4 in Cowen 1990) and converting this to age frequency using the length-age relationship data (Figure 2 in Cowen 1990). Generation time, as the mean age of mature females varied from 4.1 to 8.5 years across the 4 populations, these are therefore set as the plausible limits of generation time. The mean of the 4 generation times calculated, 6.8, is assumed to be representative of the entire population and was, therefore, used as the point estimate.

The species is a generalist carnivore (Cowen 1983), feeding on mussels and red sea-urchins and may play an important role in regulating prey density (see citations in Alonzo et al. 2004).

Natural mortality is likely to be in the order of M=0.2 (Alonzo et al. 2004).

Data needed:
How effectively protected is this species in designated marine reserves since MPAs are probably an important management measure for this species?

It would be very useful to have recent fisheries independent data on California Sheephead stocks. At present, landings would have to decrease over a number of years with a constant or increasing fishing effort in order to recognise falling stocks. The obvious way to achieve fisheries independent data and quickly assess the state of fish stocks would be to repeat the underwater visual census work of Cowen (1985, 1990) and compare the data with his pre-intensive exploitation figures. In the meantime, changes in CPUE are likely to offer the best indications of changes in abundance .

There seems to have been little work on the ecology of this species. It would be important to know if populations of Sheephead were affected by changes in environment, or habitat , such as changes in the extent and quality of kelp beds.

Data from Mexico on landings and CPUE from 1976 onwards are needed.[2].

List of Habitats:


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Sheephead are predatory fish that feed on hard-shelled animals such as crustaceans, echinoderms , mollusks, including sea urchins, crabs, clams, and other invertebrates . Sheephead pry these animals loose and crush them with their large canine teeth and powerful jaws . They also have a specialized tooth in their throats , also known as a "throat plate ," which is an adaptation for grinding the invertebrates into smaller pieces to aid the sheephead in the digestion .


This species is a "protogynous hermaphrodite," meaning it begins life as a female but then becomes a male at a later time. Females mature at about four years and undergo a sex change around eight years. However, some slow growing females may not make the change into a male. Spawning occurs during spring and summer months. Development into a male occurs between spawning seasons and usually takes less than a year.


Sheephead are usually solitary fish, but may aggregate in small groups within kelp fronds or by rocky reefs. They lead an active life during the day and sleep at night, often hiding in caves or rock crevices. Like most wrasses , they surround themselves with a mucus layer to cover their scent while they sleep, avoiding discovery by a nighttime predator . Like some of their wrasse relatives, juvenile sheephead are occasionally known to clean other fishes from parasites and dead skin . Generally, they are slow moving swimmers, using ther pectoral fins for forward motion. The caudal fin is used for short bursts of speed .


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Labrus pulcherLabrus pulcher Ayres • Labrus pulcher Ayres, 1854 • Pimelometopon pulcherPimelometopon pulcher (Ayres • Semicossyphus pulcher


Name Status: Accepted Name .

Last scrutiny: Data last modified by FishBase 07-Jul-1995

Similar Species

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Members of the genus Semicossyphus

ZipcodeZoo has pages for 3 species and subspecies in this genus:

S. darwini (Gal?pagos Sheephead Wrasse) · S. pulcher (California Sheephead) · S. reticulatus (Asian Sheepshead Wrasse)

More Info

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Further Reading

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Data Sources

Accessed through GBIF Data Portal March 02, 2008:



  1. Gomon, M.F. (1995). Labridae. Viejas, doncellasas, señoritas. p. 1201-1225. In W. Fischer, F. Krupp, W. Schneider, C. Sommer, K.E. Carpenter and V. Niem (eds.) Guia FAO para Identification de Especies para lo Fines de la Pesca. Pacifico Centro-Orienta ... [back]
  2. Cornish, A. & Dormeier, M. 2006. Semicossyphus pulcher. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. <>. Downloaded on 04 February 2012. [back]
Last Revised: 2013-10-29