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Traditional Ways of Knowing: ʻOpihi in Hawaiʻi

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices
NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas

Limpets are gastropod snails with squat dome- or cone-shaped shells (SF Fig. 3.5). They generally live in rocky intertidal and tidepool habitats (SF Fig 3.5 D). Most limpets feed by scraping algae from rocks using a rasp-like radula (Fig. 3.55). ʻOpihi is the Hawaiian word for limpet. There are four species that occur in Hawaiʻi:

  • black-foot limpet, or ʻopihi makaiauli (Cellana exarata),
  • yellow-foot limpet, or ʻopihi ʻālinalina (Cellana sandwicensis),
  • giant kneecap limpet, or ʻopihi koʻele (Cellana talcosa), and
  • green-foot limpet (Cellana melanostoma).


SF Fig. 3.5. (A) Several ʻopihi (Cellana sp.) attached to rocks in the intertidal zone

Image courtesy of water llama, Flickr

SF Fig. 3.5. (B) Underside of yellow-foot limpet (Cellana sandwicensis), known in Hawaiʻi as ʻopihi ʻālinalina

Image courtesy of Rosa Say, Flickr


Image caption

SF Fig. 3.5. (C) Diagram of limpet exterior

Image copyright and source

Image courtesy of Pearson Scott Foresman, Wikimedia Commons

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SF Fig. 3.5. (D) Typical ʻopihi habitat, Kaʻūpūlehu, Island of Hawaiʻi

Image copyright and source

Image courtesy of Rosa Say, Flickr

All four ʻopihi species are endemic to Hawaiʻi, meaning that they do not live naturally anywhere else on Earth. Black-foot limpet, or ʻopihi makaiauli, can be found in the drier upper splash zone of rocky intertidal habitats throughout Hawaiʻi (SF Fig. 3.5 D). Its sister species, the yellow-foot limpet, or ʻopihi ʻālinalina, thrives in the wetter lower and middle intertidal zones. The largest of the Hawaiian ʻopihi is the giant kneecap limpet, or ʻopihi kōʻele. This species occurs submerged in shallow waters up to the lower intertidal zone. The green-foot limpet (Cellana melanostoma) lives throughout the intertidal zone in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands but is rarely found in the main Hawaiian Islands.


The ʻopihi has always held great significance to Hawaiians as a popular food item, which Hawaiians ate raw or boiled. They also traditionally used ʻopihi shells as jewelry, as plant fertilizer, and as a tool for scraping mi, or edible taro root Because men typically fished on coral reefs and in offshore waters while women and children collected a variety of molluscs, sea urchins (wanaʻina, hāwaʻe, and ʻukeʻuke species in Hawaiian), and seaweeds (limu in Hawaiian) from the intertidal and nearshore areas, the gathering of ʻopihi was primarily done by women. Gathering wild ʻopihi from their wave-swept rocky habitats can be very dangerous. The Hawaiian proverb he iʻa make ka ʻopihi translates to “the ʻopihi is a fish of death,” referring to the hazards faced by collectors.


Traditional Hawaiian ʻopihi pickers followed strict rules set by local resource managers called konohiki. These rules limited the size, number, species, locations, and times for harvesting, with the goal of sustaining healthy ʻopihi populations. In modern day Hawaiʻi, ʻopihi have become relatively scarce due to overharvesting and habitat loss. Hopefully, sustainable management principles drawing from both traditional ways of knowing and rigorous science can preserve ʻopihi for future generations to enjoy.

Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.