The Labridae (including wrasses, the Odacidae and the Scaridae) is a species-rich group of perciform fishes whose members are prominent inhabitants of warm-temperate and tropical reefs worldwide. We analyse functionally relevant morphometrics for the feeding apparatus of 130 labrid species found on the Great Barrier Reef and use these data to explore the morphological and mechanical basis of trophic diversity found in this assemblage. Morphological measurements were made that characterize the functional and mechanical properties of the oral jaws that are used in prey capture and handling, the hyoid apparatus that is used in expanding the buccal cavity during suction feeding, and the pharyngeal jaw apparatus that is used in breaking through the defences of shelled prey, winnowing edible matter from sand and other debris, and pulverizing the algae, detritus and rock mixture eaten by scarids (parrotfishes). A Principal Components Analysis on the correlation matrix of a reduced set of ten variables revealed complete separation of scarids from wrasses on the basis of the former having a small mouth with limited jaw protrusion, high mechanical advantage in jaw closing, and a small sternohyoideus muscle and high kinematic transmission in the hyoid four-bar linkage. Some scarids also exhibit a novel four-bar linkage conformation in the oral jaw apparatus. Within wrasses a striking lack of strong associations was found among the mechanical elements of the feeding apparatus. These weak associations resulted in a highly diverse system in which functional properties occur in many different combinations and reflect variation in feeding ecology. Among putatively monophyletic groups of labrids, the cheilines showed the highest functional diversity and scarids were moderately diverse, in spite of their reputation for being trophically monomorphic and specialized. We hypothesize that the functional and ecological diversity of labrids is due in part to a history of decoupled evolution of major components of the feeding system (i.e. oral jaws, hyoid and pharyngeal jaw apparatus) as well as among the muscular and skeletal elements of each component. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 82, 1–25.