Hawkfish are strictly tropical, perciform marine fish of the family Cirrhitidae. Associated with the coral reefs of the western and eastern Atlantic and Indo-Pacific, the hawkfish family contains 12 genera and 32 species. They share many morphological features with the scorpionfish of the family Scorpaenidae.
Hawkfish have large heads with thick, somewhat elongated bodies. Their dorsal fins are merged, with the first consisting of ten connected spines. At the tip of each spine are several trailing filaments, hence the family name Cirrhitidae, from the Latin cirrus meaning “fringe.” Their tail fins are rounded and truncate and their pectoral fins are enlarged and skinless. Their scales may be cycloid or ctenoid. Most hawkfish are small, from about 2.76 ““ 5.91 in (7-15 cm) in length. The largest species, the giant hawkfish (Cirrhitus rivulatus) attains a length of 23.62 in (60 cm) and a weight of 8.82 lb (4 kg). A commercial fishery exists for the larger species as they are considered an excellent food fish.
The vibrant colors exhibited by most hawkfish have won them popularity in the aquarium hobby, aided by the fishes’ reputation for unproblematic upkeep and easy acclimation to tank life. Popularly kept species include the longnose hawkfish (Oxycirrhites typus), colored in a red and pink crosshatch pattern, and the flame hawkfish (Neocirrhites armatus).
Thanks to their large, skinless pectoral fins, hawkfish are able to perch upon flame corals without incurring harm. Actually hydrozoans rather than true corals, flame corals possess stinging cells called nematocysts which would normally prevent close contact. Afforded some degree of protection by their living perches, hawkfish seek the high ground of the reef where they warily survey their surroundings; similar to a hawk’s behavior, this habit inspired their common name.
Most hawkfish are solitary in nature but some will form pairs and share a head of coral. Other species form harems of up to seven females dominated by a larger male. They are diurnal and remain within the shallows of the reef, no deeper than 98.43 ft (30 m). Typically motionless, hawkfish will dart out to grab crustaceans and other small invertebrates which happen to pass by.
Spawning occurs at night, at or near the water’s surface. Hawkfish are pelagic spawners; that is, they release many tiny buoyant eggs which drift with the ocean currents until hatching. Hatching is thought to happen after about three weeks; the distance traveled in this time may explain the exceptionally wide distribution of hawkfish. They have not been successfully bred in the aquarium, with the exception of the longnose hawkfish.
Hawkfish are noted for their protogynous hermaphrodism: functional females will change into males if the dominant supermale dies. Hawkfish are generally not sexually dichromatic, meaning the sexes cannot be distinguished by coloration alone.