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Related FAQs: Hawaiian Triggerfishes, Triggerfishes in General, Triggerfish: Identification, Selection, Selection 2, Compatibility, Behavior, Systems, Feeding, Diseases, Triggerfish Health 2, Reproduction, Also see other Regional Accounts, Hawaiian Fishes

Related Articles: Triggerfishes, Pet-fishing in the Hawaiian Islands

/A Diversity of Aquatic Life

Triggerfishes of the Hawaiian Islands

Bob Fenner

 Sing it, "It's the..."

Triggerfishes for  Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care

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by Robert (Bob) Fenner

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Balistids in the Land of Aloha: The Triggerfishes of Hawai'i 

Bob Fenner



            Of the three regions on our planet that vie for highest degrees of endemism (species only found there), the Red Sea, Sea of Cortez and Hawai'i are about equal with some one quarter of their nearshore fish-life only occurring on their shores. For the U.S. 50th State the division by family is not such a consistent demarcation however. Of the ten species of Triggerfishes that occur here, all can be found elsewhere as well, and a few are very widespread, a couple are indeed circumtropical. 

            For aquarists there are a couple of ?standard? offerings as livestock collected here, but for the most part collectors avoid Balistids. From first hand experience (ouch!) I can assure you that these swimming dental destroyers are particularly uninvited guests in barrier/mist nets, and if they can't be avoided, are the first to be caught and often released over the fence netting before biting holes into it in their frenzied escape. 

            Here are all the species of triggers that occur in Hawaiian waters with pertinent notes re their selection, care and even underwater photography.____________________________________________________________-

How much do you know about the fishes of the Aloha State? How many species of Triggerfishes would you hazard a guess, can be found from here? Can you name many of them? Most folks have heard (and surprisingly many of them can be heard to secretly sing in the shower, "Tiny Bubbles" and a bit of "The Humu humu Nuku Nuku apua'a, Don Ho version, re the Picasso Trigger, Rhinecanthus aculeatus found in Hawai'i...) but there are no less than nine total Balistid species that can be found in this area. 

    For you folks who are looking for a rough and tumble "centerpiece" species out of this region, a special something to complete a large biotopic presentation of shallow water marines from the 50th State, are headed there for a holiday to do some diving/snorkeling and wondering what you might see underwater, or simply an interest in intelligent fish life, here's a review of this almost "two dirty handfuls" of triggers.

Balistid Systematics:

The profile of any given triggerfish is unmistakable. With their laterally compressed, rough, plate-like skin, square-tailed, with three dorsal spines that along with their distensible underside help them "lock" themselves in places where you and I can't pull them out. All have canine like teeth for crushing prey.

The family Balistidae comprises eleven genera of approximately forty species, about half of which make it into marine aquarists tanks. Of Hawaii's nine species four are regularly seen in the trade, two others on occasion, but only two are actually regularly collected from here. The reasons? They chew up nets and other species/specimens in collection "buckets", and don't bring enough revenue compared with other regions they're found in.

The Triggerfishes range in size as much as temperament. Most species stay under a foot in length, a few can grow to three feet or so! None of the gigantic species of Balistids hail from Hawai'i. Geographically they are found throughout the warm parts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Some are circumtropical. That's right, the same species found around the world.

Hawaiian Species of Triggerfishes:

Canthidermis maculatus (Bloch 1786), the Spotted Oceanic Triggerfish. Circumtropical. A pelagic species that adapts poorly to captivity in general. To about a foot and a half in length. Aquarium image of a six inch juvenile. A rarity in the pet-fish interest.

Most wholesalers offer two species of Melichthys more or less continuously, the circumtropical Black (Durgeon) Triggerfish, Melichthys niger (Bloch 1786) (usually available out of Hawai'i), to eighteen inches. Variable in color, able to change to light/dark quickly. 

Pinktail Trigger, Melichthys vidua (Richardson 1845), the other commonly offered member of the genus. Found throughout the Indo-Pacific. These are "medium" aggressive fish species that grow to about a foot in length in captivity, sixteen inches in the wild. Here are specimens in the Gilis and Hawai'i.

The most popular Rhinecanthus species is immortalized in the song of none other than Don Ho himself. This is the Humu humu nukunuku apua'a (literally "water pig with a needle" in Hawaiian, in reference to grunting noise they make and their spiny dorsal "trigger"), AKA the Picasso or Lagoon Trigger (aka the "Blackbar" to science), Rhinecanthus aculeatus (Linnaeus 1758). Below, two inch baby in captivity six inch specimen in the Cooks and one about the same size in captivity shown.

The Rectangle or Reef Triggerfish ("Wedge-Tail Triggerfish" to science), Rhinecanthus rectangulus (Bloch & Schneider 1801)shares the waters and common Humu name with the Picasso in Hawai'i. Indo-Pacific, Red Sea, east African coast. Shown here as an adult in Hawai'i. To one foot in length.

Most commonly offered are the Sickle, Lei or my favorite, Boomerang Triggerfish, Sufflamen bursa (Bloch & Schneider 1801), (mainly out of Hawai'i), an adult there shown and a smaller (four inch) individual in the Cooks.

Sufflamen fraenatus (Latreille 1804), the Masked Triggerfish. Indo-Pacific east African coast, out to Hawai'i, where this specimen is off of The City of Refuge, Kona. To fifteen inches in length.

The Blue Throat or Gilded Triggerfish, Xanthichthys auromarginatus (Bennett 1832), is a true reef dweller. Here is a female and a male off of Maui, Hawai'i. Indo-west Pacific. To about a foot total length.

A more open ocean species, the Redtail or Crosshatch Triggerfish, Xanthichthys mento (Jordan & Gillbert 1882). Entire tropical Pacific. To a foot in length. One in captivity and a school off of Socorro in the Eastern Pacific.


    Of these Trigger species out of Hawai'i (Note: it may be obvious, but these same species do "come in" from elsewhere... check with your supplier re this if it's important to you) only the Pinktail, Humu, Rectangle and Blue Throat are collected/available regularly. At times you may find the Black and Lei Triggers from here as well. No species of Balistid in the area is super-abundant, and many collectors wish they didn't exist here at all. The vast majority of Hawaiian marines are collected with a barrier/fence net that scuba divers set, drive the intended catch into, and hand-net off... Enter the trigger/s... in a happy scenario, just one, two, not too big (sort of reminds me of Monty Python's "shrubbery" routine in "The Holy Grail)... and with rapid, skilled movement, removed from the fence net... before it/they chew/s a hole and swims through... with the rest of the catch behind it! Fishes: 1, You: 0 and minus a net to continue fishing with. More on this topic, technology in an article self-cited below.

    Most Triggerfish species offered in the trade rank the highest score (a 1) in my book in terms of aquarium survivability. This is of course given a few, actually two provisos: One, that you secure initially healthy specimens (usually no problem), and two, that they are procured at a reasonably small (but not too tiny) size. For most species the latter practical range is a few to a handful of inches in total length. All triggers are wild collected, and most of only an inch or so to start will do all right, but the two to five inchers are more sure-fire for adapting to captive conditions. 

   Look for an outgoing personality and a dearth of bruises, bloody markings on new specimens particularly. Prospective buys should be out and about, not skulking in corners. These fishes will almost always take food... do not buy ones that refuse to eat. Some broken fin elements are to be expected, considering the tremendous trauma triggers suffer in capture, being held and moved about. Rest-assured, torn fins will heal quickly (within weeks) as long as the specimen is feeding.



    Two words: Big and Rocky. Triggerfishes associated with reefs may seem like tough types. But they'd rather "fly than bite" (unless on a nest); frequently ducking into rock work/caves if they can't just swim away. These fishes need space. Even "tiny" ones should be kept in at least a forty gallon system, and none of them are happy in less than a hundred gallons as aquarium adults. 


    Needs to be over-sized and vigorous. Triggerfishes are large, messy feeders and defecators. Keep their water in motion. Under-sized skimmers need not apply. Keep the water in motion in your trigger's tank... you will find they are quite playful, "facing off" in water jets, bubbles as well as digging up what they can...

Water Conditions: 

    "Standard Fish-Only" water conditions of no ammonia, nitrite, less than 10 ppm of nitrate, pH in the low eights are fine for Triggerfishes.... unless you're risking placing them with other more sensitive livestock. Yes, I have seen all these species kept in full-blown reef tanks... of size, with some chances being taken as to whether the Balistids would "sample" their tankmates to death.



   We'll cover all three of these categories in one go, as with the triggers they're inter-related. Balistids are easily put into new systems (and ship remarkably well... if packaged carefully so they don't bit through and/or puncture their shipping bags...) by way of either a drip or ladling of water approach. After mixing water, carefully lift the specimen out either in a jar or with your bare hand (watch your fingers, they can/will bite at times) and place them unceremoniously in their new home (best going by way of at least a pH adjusted freshwater dip if not a week or two in quarantine). Why not use a net? If I were in the "net business" it would be disingenuous of me to suggest this... These fishes not only bite through nets of any type, but have many prickly body parts that get easily stuck there... necessitating that you cut your net up for them. 


    Here's an easy area of the triggers husbandry. They eat everything. All sorts of foods; freeze-dried, fresh, live, frozen/defrosted or not... in most any size, quantity. Want to see yours in their best color, keep them in optimum health? Vary the diet, occasionally supplement with a soaking of the foodstuffs in a liquid vitamin preparation. 

Disease Prevention/Cure

    It's rare, but Triggerfishes can contract the typical parasitic reef parasitic diseases. They will be the last or close to it to show symptoms. The usual environmental manipulation and copper treatments work fine with them. 

    Even more rare are occasional "feeding strikes" with these fishes. If yours seems to not be eating, do quickly check on your water quality and gear to make sure they are not amiss. If your other livestock are fine, don't panic. Triggers can/do go for a week or more at times w/o feeding. Do keep trying something meaty on a daily basis. They rarely stop eating for good. 


    Next time you're out to Hawai'i, either diving or snorkeling, look about for triggers. Don't see any? Try clapping and rubbing two stones together underwater. If there are Balistids about, they'll find you. The fiftieth State has a goodly number of individuals and species of Triggerfishes, some aquarium useful, others not quite so. Enjoy them if your systems have the space, mechanicals, temperament... if not, go visit them in the wild. Aloha. 

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Berry, F.H. & L.E. Vogele. 1966. Triggerfishes (Balistidae) of the E. Pacific. Calif. Acad. Sci. Ser. 4, 34:429-474.

Burgess, Warren E., Axelrod, Herbert R. & Raymond E. Hunziker. 1990. Atlas of Aquarium Fishes Reference Book, v.1 Marine Fishes. T.F.H. Publications, NJ.

Campbell, Douglas G. 1979. Fishes for the beginner; A guide for the new marine hobbyist - part five; Triggerfish. FAMA 3/79.

Dareste, C. 1872B. On the natural affinitions of the Balistidae. Ann. Mag. Nat Hist. Ser. 4, 10:68-70.

Edmonds, Les 1994. Trigger happy fish. TFH 8/94.

Fenner, Bob. 2001. Collecting your own marine organisms with an emphasis on diving. FAMA 4/01.

Flood, Andrew Colin. 1997. The trouble with Triggers. TFH 2/97.

Fong, Jack. 1992. The ten most aggressive triggers. TFH 12/92.

Fowler, Henry W. 1967 (authorized reprint). The Fishes of Oceania. Memoirs of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum Volume X. Honolulu, HI (orig. 1928). Johnson Reprint 

Fraser-Brunner, A. 1935A. Notes on the plectognath fishes I. A synopsis of the genera of the family Balistidae. Ann. Mag. Nat. Hist. Ser. 10, 15:658-663.

Herre, Albert W.C.T. 1924. Poisonous and worthless fishes. An account of the Philippine plectognaths. Phil. J.Sci. 25, no.2.

Michael, Scott W. 1995. Trigger talk. SeaScope, v. 12, Summer 95.

Michael, Scott W. 1997. Triggerfishes. A great reason for having a saltwater tank. AFM 2/97.

Michael, Scott W. 1998. Reef Fishes, v. 1. Microcosm, VT. 624pp.

Miklosz, John C. 1972. Trigger Fishes. Marine Aquarist Magazine. 3(2), 1972.

Nelson, J.S. 1994. Fishes of the World, 3d ed. Wiley-Interscience. NY. 600pp.

Randall, J.E. & J.T. Millington. 1990. Triggerfish bite - a little known marine hazard. J. Wilderness Med. 1(2) 1990: 79-85.

Randall, John E. 1996. Shore Fishes of Hawai'i. Natural World Press, OR. 216pp.

Tinker, Spencer Wilkie. 1978. Fishes of Hawaii; A Handbook of the Marine Fishes of Hawaii and the Central Pacific Ocean. Hawaiian Service, Inc. HI. 532pp.

Titcomb, Margaret. 1972. Native Use of Fish in Hawaii. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 175pp

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