Fanlike fins of fish resemble plumage of a turkey

In Hawaii, you might find that turkeys exist not only on land, but under water, too. This marine animal is known as the Hawaiian turkeyfish. Fine venomous spines extend from the dorsal, anal and pelvic fins, resembling the plumage of a turkey, which may be the reason for its common name.

In Hawaiian, this little endemic turkeyfish is called nohu pinao. Nohu is the Tahitian name for the deadly stonefish, which actually do not live in Hawaiian waters, while pinao translates to blurred vision.

It is possible that the ancient Polynesian travelers, not finding the familiar deadly stonefish here, used the same name for similar-looking fish that were also in the scorpionfish family. Blurred vision could also possibly be what one would experience as a side effect after having come in contact with their sharp spines.

This red-and-white striped fish is uncommon and similar in appearance to other Indo-Pacific lionfish species; however this specie is very unique to Hawaii. Turkeyfish are late afternoon, or nighttime predators. They are also ingenious at hiding and disguising themselves with camouflage, relying on mottled, sometimes dull, or irregular looking exteriors, which can be warty, spiny, or even leafy-textured. They are ambitious fish, hunting crustaceans and smaller fish, which they ambush and take in with lightning speed. Their fanlike fins help corner crustaceans and small fish, and they also use their fins to stir up creatures that hide in the ocean floor.

At dusk or after nightfall, these small hunters venture out from caves or under ledges, gliding about with their extended fins, while on the prowl for small crabs or shrimp. At a maximum size of 8.5 inches, various animals, including other types of scorpionfish have been known to eat turkeyfish. Even eels have also been seen dragging a scorpionfish, around as an intended meal. Researchers have found these fish to be in the stomach contents of tiger sharks.

Divers are fully aware to be extremely cautious of hand placement on reefs or rocky ledges, but turkeyfish can also inhabit lagoons.

Snorkeling in Hawaii is truly amazing because so many interesting fish reside around colorful coral communities. The turkeyfish is just one of the many colorful creatures residing in shallow areas, blending beautifully and offering a challenge for the very observant snorkeler or diver.

* Katie Velasquez is an ocean naturalist at the Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by the Maui Ocean Center, which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.