The bottom of the ocean is home for many creatures; some of them burrowing into rocks or sand, resting on coral or even in plain view. Scorpionfish - part of the Scorpaenidae family - is an ambush predator that spends most of its time resting perfectly still. This solitary creature appears no different than a rock until it strikes purposely at its prey.
Of the 400 species of scorpionfish found worldwide, there are only 25 found in the warm waters of Hawaii. This well-camouflaged animal has the ability to lay motionless on top of a rock or reef, blending in with the disrupted color pattern below them. Many have a blotted coloration and flaps of skin that mimic algae. But it is because of their venomous spines that they get their name. Found in the dorsal, pelvic and anal spines are venom, capable of delivering a powerful and painful sting, sometimes deadly for predators that go after them. While their body is inconspicuous, some species may have bright colors on the inside of their mouth or beneath their fins. They can use a behavior called "flashing" to help act as an effective warning defense to ward off other animals.
The scorpionfish is certainly not at the bottom of the food chain. With lightening fast movements and large mouths, this hunter can swallow fish more than half their size. Because of their subtle disguise, fish unknowingly swim by or even rest on them, mistaking them for a safe-haven. They rarely have a warning before the scorpionfish opens its huge mouth within a fraction of a second and inhales it. They are normally found feeding on various fish or crustaceans at dusk or during the night.
A camouflaged Titan scorpionfish, or nohu in Hawaiian, waits for an unsuspecting fish to pass before suddenly striking its prey.
Maui Ocean Center photo
Due to their sedentary lifestyle, the scorpionfish are known to have algae and parasites on them, which can help aid in the camouflage, but it can also become bothersome over time. Luckily, they are known to have the ability to shed their outermost layer of skin periodically, effectively getting rid of any stowaways.
The best protection against a sting by this painful predator is avoidance. Always be careful of where you put your hands or feet and move slowly while in the water. If you are stung by a scorpionfish, soak the area in the hottest water you can tolerate to lessen the pain and consult a physician with any questions. Fortunately, the deadly stonefish found in Tahiti and also called nohu are not found in the Hawaiian waters. Tahitian settlers did not find the same stonefish when they came to the Hawaiian Islands, but instead discovered the Titan scorpionfish, a close relative. They called the Titan scorpionfish nohu as well, which is a favorite to Hawaiians because of its taste.
* Larissa Treese is the head aquarist 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.