Introduced Species Summary Project
Lionfish (Pterois volitans)

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Common Name: Lionfish Lion Fish  

Scientific Name: Pterois volitans                                                                                            


Phylum or Division: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Scorpaeniformes
Subfamily: Pteroinae

Identification: The lionfish has beautiful reddish or golden brown bands covering the head and body. Their body is 1.5 times the length of it's head with a total size range of 6–12 inches. Possesses fibrous "horns" covering each eye and large gill slits. With 13 poisonous dorsal spines and 14 feather-like pectoral fins, the dorsal and anal fins have dark rows of spots on a transparent background.

Original Distribution: This brightly colored fish is native to the Indo-Pacific from Australia north to southern Japan and south to Micronesia.  The lionfish is usually found in coral reefs of tropical waters, hovering in caves or near crevices.  

Current Distribution: Native regions as well as Savannah, Georgia; Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Florida; Long Island, New York; Bermuda and possibly Charleston.

Site and Date of Introduction: In southern Florida and off the coast of the Carolinas in early to mid 1990s.

Mode(s) of Introduction: Two possibilities - ballast water and the aquarium trade. Ballast water, the water carried in the bellies of the giant transport ships of intercontinental trade, has been blamed for the introduction of many exotic species to the United States. Transport by ballast water is possible for lionfish because larval lionfish have low oxygen and food needs. Possibly several lionfish were released when a private aquarium in Florida was flooded during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Also, many private aquarium owners may grow tired of the fish, and rather than kill it, will let it go in local waters.

Reason(s) Why it has Become Established: The fish is covered in deep reddish stripes and long fan-like fins that extend from its back and sides. Lurking between these luxurious fins sit long venomous spines that the fish uses to spear and immobilize its prey of small fishes and crustaceans. Warmer waters in the Atlantic Ocean, possibly due to global warming, make a suitable habitat for the lionfish.

Ecological Role: Lionfish are both active hunters and ambush predators. They feed on smaller fishes and reef crustaceans such as shrimp and small crabs. A tropical inhabitant of coral reef communities, lionfishes are slow moving and conspicuous. They rely on their unusual finnage to discourage would-be predators. They inject toxin from the hollow bones of the dorsal and pectoral fins, by whipping the fins towards a target. They are likely to affect the population size of their prey and the availability of food sources for larger fish in the Atlantic Ocean.

Benefit(s):Lionfish are at one of the top levels of the food web in many coral reefs environments.  They are also important to humans as food fishes and sources of envenomation.  Lionfish invest most of their energy in growing to a large body size early in life. This allows them to grow big rapidly so they are more likely to avoid attacks from predators and increase their chances of mating successfully.

Threat(s):The lionfish may not bode well for some species of snapper and grouper that it could compete with. The lionfish is a mid-sized predator that has done quite well in its own niche. In non-native waters, the species the lionfish would prey on might not have any defenses and would compete with species which are already facing heavy pressure from fishing  Once released, the lionfish can survive, breed and become exotic.  The lionfish thus joins the ranks of marine invasive species whose better-known and widely despised members include the European green crab, Asian eels, and zebra mussel.

Control Level Diagnosis: Although it's too early to measure just how many waves the lionfish will make on the Atlantic Coast, other unwelcome creatures already have a record of causing serious problems for local ecosystems. I would give the lionfish minimal priority since no references to problems with introduction or of existing populations can be found at this time.

Control Method: No method of control has been identified as of yet.  The Florida Marine Research Institute and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab in Beaufort, North Carolina have been recording sightings the past few years, but has yet to study the ecological effects the lionfish may have on the native inhabitants of the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo Credits: Map -
Author: Dawn Whitney
Last Edited: February 19, 2003

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