Palani – Eyestripe Surgeonfish

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

Palani, the Eyestripe Surgeonfish, is a large surgeonfish (growing up to 20 inches long) that has bright white scalpels along its side. These “scalpels” are two forward-facing spines at the base of the tail, one of each side, which are characteristic of Surgeonfishes. Although the scalpels usually lie flat, a swipe of the tail flicks out the sharp blades to inflict a painful, deep cut against an intruder or enemy. Surgeonfishes are closely related to Unicornfishes, which similarly have sharp weaponry–fixed bony keels instead of scalpels. Palani are colorful fish which feed over sand on detritus and algae. Palani can be found in schools of 5-10, swimming on their own, or sometimes swimming with manini. These fish are hugely important to the health of the coral reef as they eat the algae that compete with corals for space and light. The more Palani there are, the more space corals have to grow. 

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:

In Hawaiian, Palani translates to “stink” due to the powerful odor released when Palani are cooked. There are a variety of instructions on how to deal with the Palani’s strong smell, and the tale of Keʻemalu describes the origin of the legendary smell. Keʻemalu was floating in the sea and called on her fish ancestor named Palani-nui-mahaoʻo, who helped carry Keʻemalu back home. On the journey home, Keʻemalu had such an urge to pee and couldn’t help but relieve herself on her Palani ancestor. Palani-nui-mahaoʻo became very stinky, explaining the origin of the strong smell (Native Use of Fish in Hawaii).


The Palani is featured in line 162 of the Hawaiian creation chant, 

Hanau ka Palani, hanau ka Nukumomi i ke kai la holo
Born is the Palani [surgeon], born the Nukumoni [cavalla] in the sea there swimming