Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa – Wedgetail Reef Triggerfish


Welcome to Project Kupa’a Kamawaelualani blog post #2. These blog posts are a preview of the online educational course–complete with lessons, videos, and quizzes–that HRHF is releasing for the Spring semester of 2021. The course will be free and offered in English and Hawaiian.

Today, we present the Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, Hawaii’s state fish. “Humuhumu,” the first part of the name, refers to the reef triggerfish family, which is made up of 9 different fish species. Triggerfish are generalist carnivores with tough skins and strong jaws which feed on crustaceans, echinoderms, corals, molluscs or anything else they can find. They lay their eggs at the bottom of the ocean and guard them until they hatch. Despite normally being shy and wary, triggerfish may attack humans who venture too close to their eggs. “Nukunukuāpuaʻa,” the second part of the name, translates to “nose like a pig,” and refers to two species of humuhumu, the wedgetail triggerfish and lagoon triggerfish, both of which are commonly found on reef flats in Hawaii. 

Humuhumu swim by rippling their dorsal fins (on top) and anal fins (on bottom), allowing quick and agile maneuvers. They can propel themselves forwards, backwards, and can hover in one spot, and are notoriously difficult for predators to follow. To get a sense of how they swim, check out the below videos of humuhumu on the north shore of Kauai. When threatened, a humuhumu will attach or wedge itself in a crevice, using its two unique spines to lock its position (Waikiki Aquarium). Although “humuhumu” technically refers to all 9 species of triggerfish, it is also commonly used specifically in reference to the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa.

In traditional Hawaiian thought, dark birthmarks on a child meant the mother ate humuhumu while pregnant. Although the humuhumu today is not commonly eaten, Hawaiians used to use the humumu as food and cooking fuel. In addition to its pig-like nose, the humuhumu is often compared to its land animal counterpart. When pulled out of the water or being chased by a predator, the humuhumu is said to make a grunting noise like a pig, and some say humuhumu smell just like a pig. The humuhumu is closely tied to the Hawaiian demigod, Kama Puaʻa. Kama Puaʻa, a shapeshifter who can turn into a wild boar or man, was an ancient chief on O’ahu. One day, he visited Hawai’i Island and fell in love with Pele, the goddess of fire and lava. After the two married, Pele discovered Kama Pua’a’s rage and merciless nature, and vowed to rid herself of the evil man. Following a legendary battle between the two, Kama Pua’a escaped Pele’s wrath by retreating into the ocean and turning into a humuhumu. To this day, he is swimming around the Hawaiian Islands in the form of a triggerfish. 

Today, many people know the humumhu as the state fish of Hawai’i. In 1984, after a public vote featuring more than 55,000 participants, the Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa beat 8 other fish to win the title. Some think this vote was largely influenced by Don Ho’s famous song, “My Little Grass Shack.”