There are about 40 species of triggerfish – many brightly colored. They are often marked by lines and spots and they inhabit tropical and subtropical oceans throughout the world. Most are found in relatively shallow, coastal habitats, especially at coral reefs.
Triggerfish range in size from 7 to 20 inches. They have an oval shaped, highly compressed body with a large head ending in a small but strong- jawed mouth with teeth adapted for crushing shells. The eyes are small, set far back from the mouth, at the top of the head. The anterior dorsal fin is a set of three spines, and the first spine is stout and the longest. All three are normally retracted into a groove. As protection against predators, triggerfish can erect the first two dorsal spines: The anterior spine is locked in place by the erection of the short second spine, and can be unlocked only by depressing the second, “trigger” spine, hence the family name “triggerfish”. With the exception of a few species, the genders of all species in this family are similar in appearance.
The rather bizarre anatomy of the triggerfishe reflects their typical diet of slow-moving, bottom dwelling crustaceans, mollusks, sea urchins and other echinoderms, generally creatures with protective shells and spines. Many will also take small fishes and some even feed on algae. Trigger are known to exhibit a level of intelligence that is unusual among fishes, and have the ability to learn from previous experiences.
Some triggerfish species can be quite aggressive when guarding their eggs and will viciously defend their nests against intruders, including scuba divers and snorkelers. Their territory extends in a cone from the nest toward the surface, so swimming upwards can put a diver further into the fishes’ territory; a horizontal swim away from the nest site is best when confronted by an angry triggerfish.
Triggerfish males migrate to their traditional spawning sites prior to mating and establish territories. Some male species build hollow nests within their territories. Triggerfish males are fierce in guarding their territories as having a territory is essential for reproduction. A male’s territory is used for spawning and parental care. Most male territories are located over a sandy sea bottom or on a rocky reef. A single territory usually includes more than one female, and the male mates with all of the females residing in or visiting his territory.
Triggerfish are light, thin fillets with a mild flavor that is suitable for baking, broiling or frying.