Raccoon Butterflyfish – Kīkākapu

This is the first in a series of HRHF blog posts aimed at combining western biological sciences with traditional Hawaiian knowledge as they relate to marine life on Kaua’i. With each blog, we will highlight a different fish, coral, or other marine animal, and explore the basic biology and cultural connection of that animal. Each blog provides a preview of information that will be available on our forthcoming online educational program, Project Kupaa Kamawaelulani (“Kupaa” means “steadfast” or “loyal” and “Kamawaelulani” is the traditional name for Kaua’i). Mahalo to our interns Gemma Shepherd and Addison Luck for researching and preparing these blogs!

We spotted a Raccoon Butterflyfish, one of the dozens of species of Butterflyfish or kīkākapu found in Hawai’i, at Ahihi Point on October 7, 2020. They have bold color schemes and patterns, giving them a recognizable appearance and helping them find a mate. Some believe that the black spot on their tail confuses their predators into thinking the tail is actually the head, allowing the fish to easily escape a threatening bite. Their diet mostly consists of soft-bodied invertebrates including sea anemones, worms, nudibranchs, and occasionally coral polyps and algae. They tend to hang out in shallow reef flats and lagoons, where they play an important role in cleaning coral by feeding on dead and sick polyps. By eating these dead and diseased polyps, kīkākapu play a vital role in allowing new coral to grow and maintaining the overall health of a coral reef. An abundance of kīkākapu usually indicates a healthy coral reef, which may explain why kīkākapu translates to “strongly forbidden”, meaning it was illegal to catch them for food. Indeed, the kīkākapu is described in traditional Hawaiian poems, news articles, and chants as being forbidden and sacred. For example, the “mālama lama’ia ka lau kapu o keaka” poem (“to steward the keaka tree”) says,

With striped marks on the forehead,
The mark of the kīkākapu fish,
The sacred fish smitten with bitter bile.

He kakau kiko ʻōniʻo i ka lae,
He kiko o ke kīkākapu.
ʻO ka iʻa kapu hīlia au ʻawahia.

On the day we spotted kīkākapu (Oct.7,2020), the lunar phase was Lā’au Pau, or 65% Waning Gibbous. Lā’au refers to three lunar nights and during this time the planting of certain fruit trees is discouraged while collecting medicinal herbs is encouraged. High tides during Lā’au moons are early morning and evening. On this day, ocean conditions were rough and visibility was poor.

Image credited to Nakoa Foundation 2020