If you love unicorns, chances are you’ve heard of unicornfish. Have you ever wondered if they’re real, or if they’re a myth like other unicorns?

Wonder no more! These are actual creatures that exist! They aren’t mythical, they don’t belong in stories and legends; they are swimming around in our seas, as real as any other fish out there! In some places, you can even have a unicornfish for dinner, though I’m not sure that I’d want to do that.

Unicorn fish are real!
A curious unicornfish taking a peek at you.

Real unicorns, even if in fish form, might sound very exciting, but before you go and grab your scuba gear and get splashing around, it’s worth understanding a bit about them. Unicornfish don’t quite match up to the shiny white and rainbow creature many of us associate with unicorns, though they are beautiful creatures in their own right, and well worth watching if you get an opportunity.

Why Are They Called Unicornfish?

The first question to answer with these weird fish is where they get their name from – especially as they don’t look much like unicorns! The simple answer is that they have a single horn on their foreheads, which is a bit like a unicorn’s horn in appearance. The horn isn’t much like a unicorn’s in any other way, however. It can grow longer than 10 centimeters (~4 inches), but doesn’t serve as a defensive weapon.

Unicorn fish with a horn on its forehead.
Bignose Unicornfish

Not all fish within this genus have the horn, though they still carry the name. They do all have a pair of sharp spikes, where their tails meet their bodies. These spikes point forwards, and can be used both defensively and aggressively.

Unicornfish are the cousins of surgeonfish, according to Britannica. They are also sometimes called Sinungay, which Delishably says comes from the Filipino term “sungay,” meaning horn. Obviously, if unicornfish and sungay are its two most common names, this is the most notable feature about the fish, regardless of what language it’s being named in!

The fish are also very nippy swimmers. They’re flat-bodied, so they are designed for speed, and can whip through the water with surprising swiftness. I don’t think they could outstrip their mythical cousins, but they’re graceful and skillful swimmers, nonetheless.

What Do They Look Like?

Unicornfish can get quite big, around 3 feet in length, and are generally a dark brown color, probably to better blend with the ocean. They certainly aren’t sporting rainbow manes or tails, and they lack the brilliant white coats which mythical unicorns are famous for.

Bignose Unicornfish Apperance
Bignose Unicornfish with a brightly colored spine

However, as DiveAdvisor says, some unicornfish do have brightly colored spines, which perhaps makes them a little closer to their rainbow equine cousins. It lists these as Bluespines and Orangespines, so no prizes for guessing what colors their spines might be!

Some of the fish have white tails, which look very striking against their dark bodies. A little like a unicorn glimmering in the gloom of a forest, these are often the most visible part of the fish as they flash through the water.

Unicornfish have long, pointed faces and elegant tails which stream out in the water. Because of the spines on their sides, they can defend themselves, but they aren’t generally aggressive, and will usually swim away rather than confront a predator. They are rather striking fish, being a slightly unusual shape, and they’re certainly a fish I’d love to see in person!

Where Do They Live?

Unicornfish are usually found in the Indo-Pacific region. They like warm seas, and coral reefs are their stamping – or swimming – ground. Many species aren’t particularly territorial, and often cross large expanses of reef to find their food.

Naso brevirostris can be found widely throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Short-nosed unicornfish (Naso brevirostris) can be found both in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

If you’re looking specifically to see them, the main areas they can be found in include the Indian and Pacific oceans, Hawaii, and some of the East Asian countries. Delishably also says that there have been claims they swim on the reefs in Japan, so they’re a wide-ranging fish. The key is that they love warm water with coral, so they shouldn’t be too tricky to locate.

If you’ve ever seen unicornfish in the wild, we’d love to hear about where you saw them and what you thought of them. Do they live up to their mythical cousins? What else did you see at the same time?

What Do They Eat?

Algae - source of nutrition for unicornfish
Unicornfish mostly feed on algae

Unicornfish predominantly live on algae, which they can find on the reefs where they live. Like many other fish, they aren’t particularly fussy eaters, and will feed wherever they can. Some will wait beneath other shoals of fish, hoping to pick up nutrients from any fecal matter, while others forage widely to get what they can.

Many unicornfish also eat weed, and will hide in patches of it if they feel threatened. Here, again, we can draw some links with their mythical cousins, grazing emerald grass in the fields above, while their real fish relatives nibble at weed swaying gently back and forth in the currents.

Unicornfish don’t prey on other fish, and will avoid those bigger than themselves for fear of becoming dinner themselves. Their gentle, herbivore nature matches that of equine unicorns.

Unicorns Or Not?

Unicornfish don’t quite satisfy many of the things we look for in actual unicorns. They aren’t particularly bright or beautiful, and they don’t possess magical powers. Their horns are often less impressive than the bright, spiraling horns we associate with unicorns, and may even be non-existent, or just a bump on the front of their heads. They aren’t associated with luck or freedom or immortality.

They do, however, tend to swim with others of their kind in shoals, and they graze the vegetation around them just as unicorns do. They are swift and agile, and certainly not something you want to miss out on if you’re diving in areas where they are commonly found.

If you’ve had the good fortune to see them before, or you’re hoping to see them soon, remember what you’ll be able to tell your friends: Hey, I’ve seen a real unicorn… fish.