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CRITTER: Hawaiian kumu — a master teacher underwater

Kumu is a species of goatfish that grows to be about 15 inches long and is usually a pink or red color.

It is a very popular fish for people to catch especially if you spearfish. It is also called the whitesaddle goatfish due to the white stripes behind the eyes. Kumu are red because they often live in caves where there is little light and the red color looks black in a cave which helps it hide from predators.

Kumu used to be one of the most common fish in Hawaiian waters, but over the past 50 years there has been a sharp decline in the population. It is an endemic fish, which means it only occurs in Hawai‘i and the name kumu has a special meaning.

In the Hawaiian language there are many meanings for the same name, but often they are related. In the sea, most of the marine life has a counterpart living on land and kumu is know as the master of the sea.

On land, kumu is often uses to describe a teach or one that is a master of teaching Hawaiian knowledge. Kumu is a very respected source of knowledge and one can be a kumu hula, who teaches hula or a kumu kula, who teaches Hawaiian culture in the classroom.

Kumu the fish is also a master teacher underwater. It has two barbels under it chin that they use to find food. Kumu probes the sand and cracks in the reef to locate small crabs and shrimp using electromagnetic sensors in their barbels. This is fascinating to watch because the goatfish can flush out small critters living under the sand and they use their barbels like little hands to dig with.

Other fish on the reef know the kumu is a master at finding hidden food, so they follow the goatfish around and grab the food when the goatfish flushes it out of its hiding space. You will often see one or two papio (jacks) following every kumu when it is feeding, which makes it hard for the kumu to get enough food for itself. The bigger problem for kumu, of which may have caused this species to have a sharp decline in Hawai‘i, are introduced non-native fish.

In 1958, the Hawaiian government introduced the bluestripe snapper (ta’ape) from Marquesas Islands into Hawaiian waters. This introduced fish learned quickly that the kumu was an expert at finding hidden prey so now you will often see a dozen or more ta’ape following a single kumu trying to steal its dinner! The kumu has to work harder all the time because it is trying to feed itself, but often is also feeding several additional fish at the same time!

You can see kumu in action in my movie “The Worlds Guide To Hawaiian Reef Fish,” which is now free on my YouTube channel at Underwater2web.


Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei Kaua‘i and co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawaii go to
Source: The Garden Island

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