Kīkākapu – Butterflyfish

Kīkākapu – Racoon Butterflyfish

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

(we recommend watching the video with subtitles on)

The Raccoon Butterflyfish, one of the dozens of species of Butterflyfish found in Hawaii, is broadly classified by Hawaiians as kīkākapu. Butterflyfish are characterized by having small brush-like teeth and laterally compressed, disk-like bodies which help them maneuver between corals and rocks. Kīkākapu, including the Threadfin, Saddleback, Bluestripe, Lined, Ornate, Multiband, and Racoon Butterflyfish, 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 allow new coral to grow, which maintains the overall health of a coral reef ecosystem. 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. Other Hawaiian names for Butterflyfish include kapuhili (Oval Butterflyfish), lauwiliwili (Milletseed Butterflyfish), lauhau (Fourspot and Teardrop Butterflyfish), and lauwiliwili nukunuku ‘oi’oi (Common Longnose and Big Longnose Butterflyfish).  

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:

As mentioned earlier, “kīkākapu” translates to “strongly forbidden” and it is kapu (taboo) to catch the fish for food. Indeed, the kīkākapu is described in traditional Hawaiian chants and poems as being forbidden and sacred. For example, the mālama lama’ia ka lau kapu o keaka poem (to steward the keaka tree) says,

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

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