Lionfish

A lionfish (Pterois volitans) rises up from the reef to hunt silversides. Photo taken by Dr. Alex Mustard, you can find more at www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygi
Order: Scorpaeniformes
Family: Scorpaenidae
Genus: Pterois
Species: Pterois volitans

When talking about invasive species, I mentioned the lionfish. Can they hurt you? Yes. Are they devastating Atlantic coral reefs? Yes. However, they are not evil fish, despite one of their other common names: the devil firefish.

Pterois volitans is a beautiful fish native to the tropical waters of the eastern Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean. They can be found in depths of 7−180ft (2−55m) near seagrass beds, coral reefs, artificial reefs, and sunken ships. I’ve seen them hiding in crevasses or overhanging ledges on the reef.

When diving, lionfish can be fairly easy to identify. Along the head and body of the fish are alternating maroon and white strips, stretching from top to bottom. Long, unique, fan-like fins, with the same stipe pattern, help the lionfish corner its prey against a reef or hard surface. Along the top, are long striped spines that you want to avoid.

Lionfish are carnivorous fish that prey upon shrimp, crabs, and more than 50 species of fish. In their native habitats, they help to keep the reef healthy, and their populations are controlled by the few predators that eat lionfish, including a couple of species of moray eels and the bobbit worm.

In the Atlantic Ocean, however, they can eat all the available prey in a given reef if gone unchecked. With no natural predators in the Atlantic, and the fact that they produce a lot of eggs each year, their populations have boomed while the populations of herbivore and commercial fish have decreased.

Despite their invasion of the Atlantic, lionfish are quite important. Whether it’s in the Pacific, Indian, or Atlantic Ocean, Pterois volitans provides food and income to the coastal communities. Divers pay good money to see lionfish, and the fish is often the target of many spearfishing tournaments in the Atlantic. You can win hundreds of dollars, depending on where you sign up! Because they’re so distinctive, lionfish can be easy targets for divers.

P. volitans are also quite popular in home aquariums around the world. Their unique coloring and flamboyant fins make for a great conversation starter at a party! Just a reminder, though: if you’re getting rid of your aquarium fish, please don’t dump them in the ocean closest to you. Take them to your local aquarium and ask for help. You never want to dump a potential invasive species in your ocean.

Another common name for lionfish is tastyfish. When I was studying in Jamaica, our dive teams would always bring spear guns, and we would hunt lionfish while exploring or doing research. When we’d come back to the lab, we’d clean them and give them to the lab’s cafeteria. Let me tell you, those wonderful ladies made some amazingly spicy lionfish!

If we make it more popular to eat lionfish, then that will help solve the population issues in the Atlantic, and it will help take the pressure off some of our commercial fish. So, the next time you’re at your local fish market or restaurant, ask for lionfish and let the owners know you’re interested!

The coloration of a lionfish is a special adaptation called warning coloration, which indicates to potential predators that it’s unsafe to eat the lionfish. In this case, the warning is legitimate. In the spines along the top are glands that store venom. When the spines puncture the skin the glands release the venom into the wound. The venom can cause excruciating pain, sweating, paralysis, and respiratory distress; rarely has it been fatal to humans.

I had a couple of classmates get stung by lionfish. One kid got stung by a live one they didn’t see in the reef, which is why you never reach your hands into areas you can’t fully see. Another kid got stung when handling a dead lionfish. In both cases, they had to be rushed to the doctor, but even after being treated, the wounds remained quite painful for a while. So please be careful while diving around lionfish or when handling them!

Lionfish (Pterois volitans) fritters offered as an after dive snack. Photo taken by Dr. Alex Mustard, you can find more at http://www.amustard.com

Sources and links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-fish/species-profiles/pterois-volitans/
https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lionfish-facts.html
https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/southeast/ecosystems/impacts-invasive-lionfish
https://www.britannica.com/animal/lionfish
https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2013/07/19/top-5-myths-about-lionfish/
https://lionfishcentral.org/resources/lionfish-recipes/ ←lionfish recipes you can try at home!

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