Reef Triggerfish - Maui Ocean Center

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Reef Triggerfish

The reef triggerfish is a charismatic resident of Maui’s coral reefs. If you’re spending one day in Maui snorkeling beneath the waves, you may catch a glimpse of this amazing fish. But in Hawaiʻi, the reef triggerfish holds a special place in mythology and culture. Known by its unforgettable Hawaiian name humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa (or humu for short), this colorful creature isn’t just a tongue twister, but was also voted the official state fish of Hawaiʻi in 1984. (In 2006, it was established as the permanent state fish by Governor Linda Lingle.) 


The reef triggerfish is also called the Wedgetail triggerfish—after its colorful exterior—because its scientific name, Rhinecanthus aculeatus, is actually shared with another triggerfish species, the lagoon triggerfish. The vibrant colors, including yellows, blues, and whites, make it a standout in coral reefs. But its looks aren’t just for show—the vibrant colors can change depending on the fish’s mood or activity.


Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa translates to “triggerfish with a snout like a pig,” and its sturdy build and powerful jaws help it crack open crustaceans and shellfish, a crucial role in maintaining reef health.


From its colorful exterior and cultural significance, to its unique swimming style and uncanny ability to hunt, the reef triggerfish is a fascinating resident of Maui’s coral reefs.


Mythological & Cultural Significance


Legends link the humuhumunukunukuāpua’a to Kamapuaʻa, the shapeshifting pig god. 


Kamapuaʻa’s ability to move between land and sea is mirrored by the reef triggerfish, which inhabits both coral reefs and sandy bottoms. The humu’s strength and powerful jaws are reminiscent of Kamapuaʻa’s fierceness. And some versions of the myth depict the humu appearing during the tumultuous romance between Kamapuaʻa and Pele, the fiery volcano goddess.


The reef triggerfish also plays an important role in Hawaiian culture as well. Maui boasts a rich history of aquaculture, with traditional fishponds playing a vital role in supporting communities. Called loko iʻa, these man-made enclosures built along the coastlines were crucial for food security. 


Loko iʻa functioned within the ahupuaʻa system—traditional land division in Hawaiʻi  designed to sustainably manage community resources—to ensure communities had access to protein sources along with other resources. Maui may have had unique techniques for loko iʻa construction and management, reflecting their ingenuity in bringing together the land and sea.


Reef triggerfish helped maintain a healthy ecosystem between plant and animal life, necessary for sustainable fish production in these ponds. Humu may also have been consumed as a food source. This connection between humu and loko iʻa showcases the interconnectedness of Maui culture and its environment. 


Reef Triggerfish Habitat and Feeding Habits


Their primary residence lies in the shallow outer reef areas, where the intricate nooks and crannies of the coral formations provide them with both shelter and food. The reef triggerfish is a resourceful eater and their sharp teeth are perfectly suited for scraping algae off the coral and rocks. But the reef triggerfish won’t shy away from eating tiny crabs, worms, or the occasional sea urchin either and this unique diet helps maintain a healthy balance within the ecosystem.


The reef triggerfish shares this vibrant underwater metropolis with an array of creatures, each playing their part. Eels (puhi), angelfish, and damselfish are a few of the creatures that share the intricate world of coral reefs with the reef triggerfish. Even larger animals like gray reef sharks (manō), sea turtles (honu), and manta rays might occasionally grace the reef with their presence.


The future of these underwater havens, however, is threatened by pollution, climate change, and overfishing. Understanding the importance of coral reefs as the reef triggerfish’s habitat and the wider ecosystem it supports is vital for conservation efforts. 


Reef Triggerfish Conservations Efforts


While the reef triggerfish isn’t considered endangered, threats like habitat loss and pollution still impact their populations. Maui is actively involved in reef conservation efforts and these initiatives focus on showing our oceans love and protecting coral reef ecosystems. Measures include reducing pollution from land-based sources, promoting sustainable fishing practices, and educating the public about the importance of healthy reefs. By supporting these efforts, visitors and residents of Maui can play a role in ensuring the continued vibrancy of the underwater world and the colorful reef fish that call it home.

Did you know?

Reef triggerfish help maintain a healthy ecosystem between plant and animal life.

Hawaiian Name


Scientific Name

Rhinecanthus rectangulus

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