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CRITTER: Meet ‘ulae the orangemouth lizard fish

Out on the coral reef, fish have to look big and tough so they don’t get eaten by larger, predator fish.

A small fish can have large, sharp teeth to protect itself, but those teeth may or may not help them in finding food. There has to be a balance between feeding and protection, and ‘ulae the lizard fish has developed a way to have both by developing false teeth.

Lizard fish are ambush predators, and they can grow to about a foot long. They are cigar shaped, and they lay motionless on top of the reef or sand while they wait for a smaller fish to swim by, which they quickly grab and eat whole.

When they are resting on the sea floor they prop their head upward while resting on their small pectoral fins, and they look like they have a grin on their face. Some lizard fish species will bury in the sand with only their head showing.

They have very sharp, small teeth, which are good for grabbing a small fish for dinner. But at the same time they have false teeth on their lips, which make them look dangerous to larger fish that may want to eat them.

Lizard fish are fun to take pictures of because they think they are so well camouflaged that they don’t move.

I have slowly approached ‘ulae while scuba diving and put my finger right under their chin before they darted away in a flash.

I was out diving one time and shooting close-up video of a small wrasse that was swimming slowly over the sand and within a split second the wrasse disappeared.

A lizard fish was buried in the sand, so I did not see it, and it grabbed the wrasse so quickly that my eyes could not tell what happened.

Sometimes ‘ulae will rest on the reef right along the path that scuba divers will take, and when the divers scare up small fish, the lizard fish will grab them.

You can see ‘ulae in action in my documentary movies I shot at Sharks Cove on O‘ahu and Koloa Landing on Kaua‘i that are posted on my website at and YouTube at Underwater2web.


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 Hawaii go to
Source: The Garden Island

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