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Hawaiian Marine Life Profiles: Fish

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Common Name:

Trumpetfish

Hawaiian Name:

nunu

Scientific Name:

Aulostomus chinensis

Found in Exhibit:

Shallow Reef



In 1776, Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Taxonomy, named a long narrow fish aulostomus chinensis. Aulos refers to a flute - the mouth of this fish supposedly resembles a flute - while chinensis means Chinese. The common name for this fish became Chinese trumpetfish, but the fish itself can be found throughout the Indo-Pacific, as well in the tropical waters around Hawaii. Its Hawaiian name is nunu or nuhu. Whether or not it truly resembles a flute or a trumpet, the trumpetfish is remarkable for its distinctive shape, color, camouflaging techniques, and hunting prowess.

Three different species of the trumpetfish family have been identified but only one is found here in Hawaii; the other two inhabit the western and eastern Atlantic. Here, the trumpetfish is fairly common and has been documented at depths of 3.3 to 407 feet.

The trumpetfish has a slender, elongated shape, a tubular snout, a barbel on its chin, and soft, transparent, feathery-looking dorsal and anal fins located far back on its body. Eight to ten short spines can be found on its dorsal fin. Gentle undulations of dorsal and anal fins propel it forward or backward at a leisurely pace through the water, but it is capable of short bursts of speed when stalking prey.

Though it seems benign, the trumpetfish is a wily predator. It can disappear into its surroundings by varying its coloration, appearing either bright yellow or a grayish or orangish brown. In the latter color phase, pale white stripes can often be seen along the length of its body, while vertical rows of white spots adorn the tail area. A black spot or false eyespot can be found at the base of each pelvic fin, a feature that makes it difficult for a prey fish to tell if the trumpetfish is coming or going.

When hiding among plants or branching coral, a trumpetfish may assume a vertical position, so that it resembles a coral branch or floating twig. When a potential meal appears, it will dart up and grab it. It can eat a fish with a larger diameter than its own body simply by expanding its snout to swallow the hapless victim in its entirety.

Another of the trumpetfish's hunting strategies is to travel in a school of plant-feeding surgeonfishes. A prey fish approaching the school head-on is unable to spot the skinny trumpetfish hiding in the middle of the pack. As the school parts around the prey fish, the trumpetfish has only to open its mouth to suck the prey fish inside.

Divers often see a trumpetfish closely following or hovering over a decoy fish such as a parrotfish. This is yet another clever trick designed to fool a prey fish or shrimp into venturing too close to a marine inhabitant that normally poses no risk to them. Trumpetfishes hunt both day and night, but have the greatest success at dusk, dawn, and twilight.

Little is known of the reproductive habits of the trumpetfish who is related to an order of fishes that include cornetfishes, seahorses, pipefishes, shrimpfishes, snipefishes, and ghost pipefishes. All of these have similar, flaring mouths reminiscent of a trumpet but may have little else in common.

A popular local name for elongated fishes of all types is "stickfishes". The trumpetfish differs from its closest relative the cornet fish in that the trumpetfish is truly stick-like and inflexible, while the cornet fish has a sinuous body that flexes from side to side as it swims. A trumpetfish can grow to 27 inches but a cornetfish can reach 4.5 feet. Trumpetfishes are usually solitary but cornetfishes seem to prefer the company of one or more companions, all of whom have long, whip-like filaments trailing behind them. They have flattened bodies tinged a greenish-blue and sport blue lines and dots on their backs.

Folks sometimes confuse trumpetfishes and cornetfishes with needlefishes, a different family altogether. Needlefishes or 'aha are long, silvery and narrow, the smaller ones reaching about 15 inches and the larger going to three feet. They have beaks like needles and very sharp teeth. Their beaks merge with their bodies to form living weapons capable of piercing a hole in the side of a canoe - or even in a human. Needlefish swim close to the ocean's surface, travel in schools, and leap out of the water like flying fish. It is said that they can leap from the water going 38 miles an hour and are attracted to the lights of folks fishing at night. Lights make them a little crazy and less likely to beware of humans as they project themselves through the air like a rain of spears.

Give needlefishes plenty of space, but enjoy the laid-back trumpetfish; it's lots of fun to watch if you should see one while out snorkeling.

PDF: trumpetfish.pdf