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Meet ‘o‘ili ‘uwi ‘uwi, the fantail filefish

This 10-inch long fish is one of the most beautiful creatures on the Hawaiian reef, but often divers go right on by and ignore it. When this fish is just causally swimming by or hiding in a cave it is quite drab looking, but as soon as it gets alarmed it opens up is amazing orange tail fin and puts up its bright yellow spine!

The Hawaiian name “‘uwi ‘uwi” means “to squeal” because when a fishermen catches the fantail it squeals like a pig! “‘o’ili” means “to come up,” and it refers to the spine on top of the back of the filefish.

This spine usually lies flat on its back, but when the fish is frightened it goes into a crack in the reef and puts its trigger up so it can’t be pulled backwards out of the crack!

Filefish get their name from the rough texture of their skin. In old Hawaii people dried this fish out in the sun and used it to sand wood and file down carvings!

There are several different filefish species here in Hawaii but the fantail is by far the most colorful.

Where can you find this beautiful fish? We really do not know, as at times they are very plentiful and at other times they simply disappear for over a year. We know they like to feed on floating algae but they also eat small invertebrates.

When they are close to shore living on the rocky reef they turn bright orange and blue, but sometimes they school in huge numbers in the open water eating algae and they stay a dull brown color! Like so many Hawaiian fish species we still do not know much about this species because it may live a secret life in deep water part of the year.

There is a story about this fish from old Hawaiian culture that talks about this fish showing up in great numbers just before an important chief dies!

Like most fish species here in Hawaii, there is a special connection between them and the Hawaii people because their lives are so closely connected, living on these isolated islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!


Terry Lilley, marine biologist, is a Hanalei resident. His websites incolude and
Source: The Garden Island

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