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Humuhumu…What? Hawai’i’s unusual state fish

Photo Credit: Nancy C. Anderson

Hawai’i’s official state fish is a remarkable little creature, and not only for the extraordinary length of its Hawaiian name, humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Residents, for the sake of brevity, most often use “humu” or “humuhumu.”

The colorful species, Rhinecanthus rectangulus, has become an enduring and beloved symbol of Hawai’i, found in classrooms and some of the classic songs of Hawai’i. It is quite common to encounter them while snorkeling Hawai’i reefs, their unique rectangular shape and bright colors being easily recognizable. First designated as the state fish in 1985, the humu became the state fish permanently in 2006, after a lapse in that designation. It was chosen through a statewide survey.

Strange Behaviors

The humu exhibits intriguing attributes and behaviors that make it, perhaps, even more unusual than its name, which translates roughly to “fish that grunts like a pig.” The humu in fact does make an audible grunting sound when distressed. The humu has a small, second spine, which it uses to wedge itself into small crevices when threatened. It also has the ability to rapidly change its colors for camouflage from predators.

The humu is capable of blowing jets of water from its mouth, which it does to uncover food under sand and small rocks. They feed on small invertebrates like sea urchins and shrimp. The humu can be seen in most Hawai’i reef ecosystems, however it is considered solitary and aggressive to others of its kind and is seldom seen in groups.

Although fish don’t actually sleep, during periods of prolonged inactivity at night, the humu can be seen “sleeping” on their side.

Little Known Facts

The humu is not an endangered species, which is perhaps unusual, as the state bird (nene goose) and state mammal (Hawaiian monk seal) are both on the endangered species list and protected by federal law. Neither is the humu a fish sought for food. In fact, from ancient times through the modern age, the humu has been used as fuel for fires to cook other, more desirable food fish.

While the humu is endemic, or native, to Hawai’i, it is not unique to the islands and can be found in reef ecosystems throughout the central and south Pacific regions.

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