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Humuhumunukunukuapua'a: A Long Name for a Little Fish

humuhumunukunukuapua'a
The reef triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus) is also known by the Hawaiian name humuhumunukunukuāpua'a, meaning "triggerfish with a pig snout." randychiu/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Pronouncing the name of Hawaii's official state fish might seem undoable to someone not familiar with the Hawaiian language, but the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a is more than just a fancy name. It looks fancy, too.

If you're a speaker of the Hawaiian language, you may know that humuhumunukunukuapua'a just means "triggerfish with a pig snout." But if you're familiar with the humuhumunukunukuapua'a, also known as the reef triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus), you'll also know that it's the most 1980s-looking fish out there. It's got a little bit of everything: neon, angular patterns, a weird, polygonal shape, dramatic eyeliner. It's no wonder that the Hawaiian legislature voted the reef triggerfish into office as the state fish in 1985. Unfortunately, its title was only bestowed on a trial basis, so when it lapsed in 1990 and no reelection occurred, Hawaii went entirely official-state-fishless until 2006, when the humuhumunukunukuapua'a was reestablished permanently as the Aloha State's piscine symbol.

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The humuhumunukunukuapua'a isn't the only triggerfish in the sea. About 40 species of triggerfish have been described, all of them tropical or subtropical, and some of them (like the reef triggerfish) are really fabulous looking — colorful with outlandish patterns and iridescent scales — and are therefore popular in the aquarium trade.

The humuhumunukunukuapua'a lives in reef habitats around the Hawaiian islands, throughout the South Pacific and down to the reefs of Australia. They're very maneuverable swimmers but mostly eat slow-moving mollusks, starfish, urchins and crustaceans off the seafloor, so they're often exposed to predators. They're called "triggerfish" because they have a spine on their back that looks like the trigger of a gun when it's erect. When threatened, a triggerfish will make a run for the closest hole in the reef they can find and send up this dorsal spine, lodging it into the crannies of the volcanic rock. Once a reef fish is jammed into its hideyhole, it's nearly impossible for a predator to drag them out of it.

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