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CRITTER: Meet nohu piano the Hawaiian green lionfish

Lion-fish live all around the world in warm tropical waters and have venomous spines, so they should be avoided while snorkeling or diving.

There are over 300 known species, and almost all of them are red, orange, black and white colors, except for the Hawaiian green lion-fish! All lion-fish are in the scorpion-fish family, and the green lion-fish is the only one that is completely isolated to a single set of islands.

Hawai‘i has many unique or endemic species because we are so far away from any other landmasses and surrounded by a very-deep ocean. Some of the fish in Hawai‘i have evolved over time to look very different than their other Pacific Ocean cousins. The green lion-fish only lives in Hawai‘i, but we also have the characteristic red lion-fish. The green lion-fish usually is found in shallow water, and the red lion-fish in deep water. Nohu pinao can even be found in a shallow tide pool right where young kids play!

You do not want to step or sit on these beautiful creatures, but they are hard to see because they blend into the algae and rocks and often hide out during the day under a shallow-water ledge. They grow to about six inches long and feed at night by ambushing small fish. The lion-fish do not like to swim, so when threatened they wave around their venomous spines and they look like they are doing an exotic dance!

If you accidentally touch nohu pinao and get a deep cut from one of its many venomous spines, you are in for a lot of pain, but more than likely won’t need to go to the hospital. The nohu venom is a neurotoxin similar to cobra venom, but is delivered in a much-smaller dose. I have been stung by nohu and bitten by cobras when I had my reptile-research center, and the lion-fish hurts more than the cobra! The pain lasts for many hours, and sometimes people will have a shortness of breath which could be a sign of going into shock, where a hospital visit would be necessary. Just like the cobra, the lion-fish venom must be injected into your bloodstream to be effective. The fish is not poisonous, so they can be eaten safely, and the larger, red lion-fish is often collected for food. The green lion-fish is so small that the Native Hawaiians did not collect them for dinner. If you ever get stung by a lion-fish, make sure to clean the wound so it won’t get infected, and you can apply hot water to the wound, which breaks down the nohu venom.

I do a lot of snorkeling with children in our marine-science camp, and I always swim the snorkel site first to make sure there are no lion-fish present. I have seen babies placed into a shallow tide pool right next to one of these very-dangerous fish! I also instruct my students to never turn over a rock with your bare hands, as I have plenty of movies of nohu hiding out right under the rocks.

You can see nohu pinao in action in my movie “The World’s Guide To Hawaiian Reef Fish” up on my web at We also have a species ID up on the web so you can see what all the native lion-fish look like.


Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei. He is 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 Hawai‘i go to
Source: The Garden Island

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