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Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. {ret.}

Lionfish

“Pterois volitans”

Lionfish have distinctive brown or maroon and white stripes or bands covering the head and body. They have fleshy tentacles above their eyes and below the mouth; fan-like pectoral fins; long, separated dorsal spines; 13 dorsal spines; 10-11 dorsal soft rays; 3 anal spines; and 6-7 anal soft rays. An adult Lionfish can grow as large as 18 inches, while juveniles may be as small as 1 inch or less. Lionfish have cycloid scales. The range of the Lionfish covers a very large area from western Australia and Malaysia east to French Polynesia and the United Kingdom’s Pitcairn Islands, north to southern Japan and southern Korea and south to Lord Howe Island off the east coast of Australia and the Kermadec Islands of New Zealand. In between, the species is found throughout Micronesia. Lionfish have been collected along the southeastern United States coast from Florida to North Carolina. Juveniles have been collected in waters off Long Island, New York and Bermuda. Lionfish are a popular marine ornamental fish and were possibly intentionally released into the Atlantic. Since Lionfish are not native to Atlantic waters, they have very few predators. They are carnivores that feed on small crustaceans and fish, including the young of important commercial fish species such as Snapper and Grouper. Unfortunately, NOAA researchers have concluded that invasive Lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be eliminated using conventional methods and the fish has now been discovered off the coast of Brazil. Marine invaders are nearly impossible to eradicate once established. The first Lionfish was reported in South Florida waters in 1985 with many additional sightings occurring until they were documented as established in the early 2000’s.

After the spine punctures the skin, the venom (a combination of protein & a toxin combining a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine) enters the wound when exposed to the venom glands within the grooves of the spine. If you are stung by a Lionfish, seek medical attention immediately. Lionfish are found in mostly all marine habitat types found in warm marine waters of the world tropics with heavy infestations in the Caribbean region. They have been found in water depths from 2 to 1,000 feet on hard bottom, mangrove, sea grass, coral and artificial reefs like shipwrecks. Lionfish are slow-moving & conspicuous, so they must rely on their unusual coloration and fins to discourage would-be predators from eating them. Lionfish are now one of the top predators in many coral reef environments of the Atlantic consuming over 50 species of fish including some economically & ecologically important species. Lionfish are active hunters who ambush their prey by using their outstretched, fan-like pectoral fins to slowly pursue and “corner” them. Lionfish are thought to be nocturnal hunters, but they have been found with full stomachs during the day in the Atlantic. They move about by slowly undulating the soft rays of the dorsal and anal fins. During the day, they sometimes retreat to ledges & crevices among the rocks and corals. Lionfish are often seen moving about during the day both alone and in small groups. Although Lionfish have been used as a food source in their native range economically, they are far more important in the aquarium trade and are a very popular aquarium addition. Lionfish are also native to the warm, tropical waters of the South Pacific & Indian oceans including the Red Sea. The spines of this species deliver a venomous sting that can last for days and cause extreme pain, sweating, respiratory distress and even paralysis. Lionfish venom glands are located within 2 grooves of the spine. 

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