Eastern morwong Goniistius vestitus, copyright Gina.

Belongs within: Centrarchiformes.
Contains: Cirrhitidae.

Of hawks and marble
Published 9 January 2021

The acanthomorph fishes (a major clade of fishes mostly characterised by the presence of spines at the front of the dorsal fin) have long been recognised as a particularly thorny problem for higher-level systematics. Morphological relationships between many of the large number of families recognised in this clade have been almost impossible to unravel, and it is only in recent years that molecular analyses have been able to start making sense of the rapid divergences. Nevertheless, there are some subgroups of the acanthomorphs that have been recognised for a long time and which recent analyses have continued to support. One such group is the cirrhitoids.

Spottedtail morwong Goniistius zonatus, copyright Joi Ito.

Variously referred to in recent sources as the Cirrhitoidea, the Cirrhitoidei, or the Cirrhitiformes, the cirrhitoids include about eighty known species usually divided between five families. These are the hawkfishes of the Cirrhitidae, the trumpeters and morwongs of the Latridae, the Cheilodactylus fingerfins, the Chironemus kelpfishes and the Aplodactylus marblefishes (the morwongs were historically placed with the fingerfins in the Cheilodactylidae but have recently been transferred based on molecular data—Ludt et al. 2019). The largest cirrhitoid is the dusky morwong Dactylophora nigricans of western and southern Australia, growing to 1.2 metres in length, but most species are only a fraction of this size. Some of the largest species are of note to fisheries. Cirrhitoids are generally inhabitants of reefs, mostly feeding on benthic invertebrates such as crustaceans. They have long been recognised as a coherent group owing to their distinctive fin structure. The lower rays of the pectoral fins are not branched, and in a number of species they are thickened and protrude past the fin membrane (observant readers of this post may have already noticed a theme in many of the genus names given to cirrhitoids, relating to this feature). The pelvic fins are set well behind the pectoral fins. Other notable features of the clade include a relatively high number of vertebrae, a relatively low number of rays in the caudal fin, and the presence in juveniles of a fatty sac running along the fish’s underside (Greenwood 1995).

Coral hawkfish Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus, copyright Aquaimages.

Both morphological and molecular studies have agreed that the hawkfishes of the Cirrhitidae represent the sister clade to the remaining cirrhitoids. Hawkfishes are brightly coloured inhabitants of the tropics, usually well under a foot in length. They are distinguished by bundles of trailing filaments emerging from the ends of the spines on the dorsal fin. Perhaps the most familiar member of the group is the longnose hawkfish Oxycirrhites typus, a regular in marine aquaria. However, this is also perhaps the most atypical member of the family as other species do not have the elongate snout. Hawkfishes commonly perch atop corals on the uppermost part of the reef, protected by the coral’s sting and able to maintain a clear view of their surrounds. Wikipedia suggests that this behaviour is the inspiration for the name of ‘hawkfish’, but I’m not sure I buy this. I mean, it sounds plausible, but it also sounds like the sort of thing you would have to be diving below the reef to see. Vernacular names for fish tend to more often refer to things you might observe while hauling them onto a boat.

Marblefish Aplodactylus arctidens, copyright Peter Southwood.

The remaining cirrhitoids are all found in cooler waters, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere. Two species of Latridae, the redlip morwong Goniistius zebra and the spottedtail morwing G. zonatus, are found in the northern Pacific off the coast of eastern Asia (the kind of distribution shown by the genus Goniistius, where species are found in northern and southern temperate waters but not in the intervening tropics, is known as ‘anti-tropical’ and it’s an interesting question how such a distribution would come to be). They are mostly found among rocky reefs, with the kelpfishes Chironemus and marblefishes Aplodactylus being particularly associated with patches of seaweed. The marblefishes feed on algae (particularly reds) as well as on some invertebrates and are characterised by a transverse mouth that is little or not protractible (Regan 1911). As noted above, the family Latridae has been inflated recently by the inclusion of most of the species previously included in the Cheilodactylidae. Cheilodactylus itself is now restricted to two species found around southern Africa. They differ from the remaining species in the latrids by the absence of a gas bladder as well as by elements of the skeleton. Many of the latrids are favourites of anglers, being well regarded as eating fish. By contrast, the herbivorous marblefishes are maligned as very poor fare and avoided. There’s something to be said for eating your greens.

Systematics of Cirrhitoidei
<==Cirrhitoidei [Cirrhitiformes, Cirrhitoidea]LBC19
|--+--Bostockia porosaSC07
| `--CirrhitidaeND13
`--+--+--Aplodactylus [Aplodactylidae]LBC19
| | |--A. arctidensSC07
| | |--A. lophodonLBC19
| | `--A. punctatus Valenciennes 1832LD09
| `--+--Chironemus [Chironemidae]LBC19
| | |--C. georgianusLBC19
| | |--C. maculatusLBC19
| | `--C. marmoratusSC07
| `--Cheilodactylus Lacépède 1803 (see below for synonymy)LBC19
| |--*C. fasciatus Lacépède 1803 (see below for synonymy)LBC19
| |--C. gibbosus Richardson 1841H90
| |--C. macropterusM27
| |--C. morwong Ramsay & Douglas-Ogilby 1886 [=Chilodactylus morwong]RD-O86
| |--C. pixiND13
| |--C. rubrolabiatus Allen & Heemstra 1976H90
| `--C. spectabilisHS01
|--+--Latris Richardson 1839LBC19
| | |--L. lineata Forster 1801 [incl. *L. hecateia Richardson 1839]LBC19
| | `--L. pacificaLBC19
| `--Latridopsis Gill 1862 (see below for synonymy)LBC19
| |--*L. ciliaris (Forster 1801) [=Anthias ciliaris]LBC19
| |--L. forsteri Castelnau 1872 (see below for synonymy)LBC19
| `--‘Micropteryx’ polycentrus Kner 1868 [=*Micropus polycentrus, *Orqueta polycentra]LBC19
`--+--Mendosoma Guinchenot 1848LBC19
| `--*M. lineatum Guinchenot 1848LBC19
`--+--Dactylophora De Vis 1883 [incl. Psilocranium Macleay 1884]LBC19
| `--D. nigricans De Vis 1883 [incl. *Psilocranium coxii Macleay 1884, *D. semimaculata De Vis 1883]LBC19
`--+--+--Pseudogoniistius Ludt, Burridge & Chakrabarty 2019LBC19
| | `--*P. nigripes (Richardson 1850) [=Cheilodactylus nigripes, Goniistius nigripes]LBC19
| `--Nemadactylus Richardson 1839 (see below for synonymy)LBC19
| | i. s.: N. rexLBC19
| | N. vemaeLBC19
| |--N. gayiLBC19
| `--+--N. monodactylus (Carmichael 1819) (see below for synonymy)LBC19
| `--+--+--N. macropterus Forster 1801 (see below for synonymy)LBC19
| | `--N. bergiLBC19
| `--+--N. douglasii (Hector 1875)LBC19, R01
| `--N. valenciennesiLBC19
`--+--Chirodactylus Gill 1862 [incl. Palunolepis Barnard 1927]LBC19
| |--+--C. variegatus (Valenciennes 1833) (see below for synonymy)LBC19
| | `--C. spectabilis [=Goniistius spectabilis]LBC19
| `--+--C. grandis (Günther 1860) (see below for synonymy)LBC19
| `--+--C. brachydactylus [=Goniistius brachydactylus]LBC19
| `--C. jessicalenorum [=Goniistius jessicalenorum]LBC19
`--+--Morwong Whitley 1957LBC19
| |--*M. fuscus (Castelnau 1879) [=Cheilodactylus fuscus, Goniistius fuscus]LBC19
| `--M. ephippumLBC19 [=Cheilodactylus ephippiumR01, Goniistius ephippumLBC19]
`--Goniistius Gill 1862 [incl. Gregoryina Fowler & Ball 1924, Zeodrius Castelnau 1879]LBC19
|--+--G. rubrolabiatusLBC19
| `--+--*G. zonatus (Cuvier 1830) [=Cheilodactylus zonatus]LBC19
| `--G. quadricornisLBC19
`--+--+--G. gibbosusLBC19
| `--G. vestitus (Castelnau 1879) [=*Zeodrius vestitus]LBC19
`--+--G. zebraLBC19
`--+--G. francisiLBC19
`--+--G. plessisiLBC19
`--G. vittatus Garrett 1864 [incl. *Gregoryina gygis Fowler & Ball 1924]LBC19

Cheilodactylus Lacépède 1803 [=Chilodactylus Agassiz 1846, Pteronemus Van der Hoeven 1855; incl. Trichopterus Gronow 1854; Cheilodactylidae]LBC19

*Cheilodactylus fasciatus Lacépède 1803 [=*Chilodactylus fasciatus, *Pteronemus fasciatus; incl. *Trichopterus indicus Gronow 1854]LBC19

Chirodactylus grandis (Günther 1860) [=Cheilodactylus grandis, Goniistius grandis, *Palunolepis grandis]LBC19

Chirodactylus variegatus (Valenciennes 1833) [=Cheilodactylus variegatus, Goniistius variegatus; incl. Che. antonii Valenciennes 1833, *Chirodactylus antonii]LBC19

Latridopsis Gill 1862 [incl. Evistias Gill 1893, Melbanella Whitley 1937, Micropus Kner 1868 nec Wolf 1810 nec Gray 1831, Orqueta Jordan 1919]LBC19

Latridopsis forsteri Castelnau 1872 [incl. Platystethus huttonii Günther 1876, *Evistias huttonii, Micropus muelleri Steindachner 1879, *Melbanella muelleri]LBC19

Nemadactylus Richardson 1839 [incl. Acantholatris Gill 1862, Dactylopagrus Gill 1862, Dactylosparus Gill 1862]LBC19

Nemadactylus macropterus Forster 1801 [incl. Cheilodactylus carponemus Cuvier 1830, *Dactylopagrus carponemus, *Dactylosparus carponemus, *Nemadactylus concinnus Richardson 1839]LBC19

Nemadactylus monodactylus (Carmichael 1819) [=Chaetodon monodactylus, *Acantholatris monodactylus]LBC19

*Type species of generic name indicated


Greenwood, P. H. 1995. A revised familial classification for certain cirrhitoid genera (Teleostei, Percoidei Cirrhitoidea), with comments on the group’s monophyly and taxonomic ranking. Bulletin of the Natural History Museum of London (Zoology) 61 (1): 1–10.

[HS01] Hayward, B. W., A. B. Stephenson, M. S. Morley, W. M. Blom, H. R. Grenfell, F. J. Brook, J. L. Riley, F. Thompson & J. J. Hayward. 2001. Marine biota of Parengarenga Harbour, Northland, New Zealand. Records of the Auckland Museum 37: 45–80.

[H90] Hutchins, J. B. 1990. Fish survey of South Passage, Shark Bay, Western Australia. In: Berry, P. F., S. D. Bradshaw & B. R. Wilson (eds) Research in Shark Bay: Report of the France-Australe Bicentenary Expedition Committee pp. 263–278. Western Australian Museum.

[LD09] Li, B., A. Dettaï, C. Cruaud, A. Couloux, M. Desoutter-Meniger & G. Lecointre. 2009. RNF213, a new nuclear marker for acanthomorph phylogeny. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 50: 345–363.

[LBC19] Ludt, W. B., C. P. Burridge & P. Chakrabarty. 2019. A taxonomic revision of Cheilodactylidae and Latridae (Centrarchiformes: Cirrhitoidei) using morphological and genomic characters. Zootaxa 4585 (1): 121–141.

[M27] Malcolm, J. 1927. The food values of New Zealand fish. Part 7: The vitamin content of the tarakihi (Chilodactylus macropterus). Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 57: 879–880.

[ND13] Near, T. J., A. Dornburg, R. I. Eytan, B. P. Keck, W. L. Smith, K. L. Kuhn, J. A. Moore, S. A. Price, F. T. Burbrink, M. Friedman & P. C. Wainwright. 2013. Phylogeny and tempo of diversification in the superradiation of spiny-rayed fishes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 110 (31): 12738–12743.

Nelson, J. S., T. C. Grande & M. V. H. Wilson. 2016. Fishes of the World 5th ed. Wiley.

[RD-O86] Ramsay, E. P., & J. Douglas-Ogilby. 1886. On an undescribed species of Chilodactylus from Port Jackson. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, series 2, 1 (3): 879–880.

[R01] Randall, J. E. 2001. Cheilodactylidae. Morwongs. In: Carpenter, K. E., & V. H. Niem (eds) FAO Species Identification Guide for Fishery Purposes. The Living Marine Resources of the Western Central Pacific vol. 5. Bony fishes part 3 (Menidae to Pomacentridae) pp. 3329–3330. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome.

Regan, C. T. 1911. On the cirrhitiform percoids. Journal of Natural History, series 8, 7: 259–262.

[SC07] Smith, W. L., & M. T. Craig. 2007. Casting the percomorph net widely: the importance of broad taxonomic sampling in the search for the placement of serranid and percid fishes. Copeia 2007 (1): 35–55.

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