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Introducing Butterflyfish – Our Colorful Friends and Neighbors

Milletseed Butterflyfish

Butterflyfish are some of the brightest fish in the coral reef system. If you’ve snorkeled with Kai Kanani, odds are you’ve seen one of the 25 species (out of 120 worldwide) that live in Hawaii. Many butterflyfish prefer shallow water, so you can almost always count on seeing one when snorkeling.

Butterflyfish are named by their bright colorings and dark markings which can resemble the wings of a butterfly. Many Butterflyfish have dark spots which may serve as false eyes to confuse predators. Due to loss of habitat, declining coral reefs, and aquarium fishing, there is some concern that these fish could face extinction.

Milletseed Butterflyfish

Size: Around 6 in (15 cm)

Hawaiian Name: Lauwiliwili

Behavior and Identification: Milletseed Butterflyfish are often seen in pairs and sometimes in large schools. They are identified by their bright yellow body, a black spot near the tail and the small vertical black spots which give them excellent camouflage when hiding in coral. Hawaiians call the Milletseed Butterflyfish Lauwiliwili because it looks like the leaves of the wiliwili tree.

Threadfin Butterflyfish

Size: Up to 9 in (23 cm)

Hawaiian Name: Kipakapu

Behavior and Identification: The Threadfin Butterflyfish is identified by a black stripe over its eye and the chevron shaped stripes on its body. They also feature a false eye located at the tip of a bright yellow dorsal fin. These fish can be found singularly or schooling, while feeding on hydroids and algae.

Longnose Butterflyfish

Size: 8.5 in (22 cm)

Hawaiian Name: Lauwiliwilinukunuku’oi’oi

Behavior and Identification: The Longnose Butterflyfish is identified by its yellow body and long nose. Its head is divided horizontally – the upper part is black and the lower part is white. It has the longest name of any Hawaiian fish which means ‘leaf of the wiliwili tree with a long nose.’ These fish can be found either alone or in groups using their long noses to probe the coral reef for food.

Pyramid Butterflyfish

Size: 7 in (18 cm)

Scientific Name: Hemitaurichthys polylepis

Behavior and Identification: The Pyramid Butterflyfish can often be seen in large schools near drop offs and underwater cliffs. We most often see these when we snorkel the back wall of Molokini as they are rarely found in shallow reef areas. These fish are identified by a white patch that resembles a pyramid on its sides.

Raccoon Butterflyfish

Size: 8 in (20 cm)

Scientific Name: Chaetodon lunula

Behavior and Identification: The Raccoon Butterflyfish is aptly named after the dark black patches over its eyes that closely resemble a raccoon. It has a false eye located near the tail. These fish are often seen in pairs and are believed to stay together for most of their lives.