Synonym(s): Firefish, Zebrafish, Ornate Butterfly-Cod, Turkeyfish
The Red Lionfish, Pterois volitans, is a strikingly beautiful but venomous fish indigenous to the west Pacific. A relatively large fish, Red Lionfish can grow up to sizes of 45cm (~17.7 in). Known for their beauty as well as their venom, Lionfish are also aggressive feeders and explosive breeders. If proper precautions are avoided, permanent populations of Red Lionfish could be possible in the United States Atlantic Coast including the Gulf of Mexico.
Ecological Threat: Red Lionfish have the potential to devastate local reef communities due to their aggressiveness, wide selection of potential prey items, as well as their ability to spawn throughout the year in the right climate. Red Lionfish are superior competitors of the Bahamian coral reef systems, and are slowly making their way to Florida and up into the Gulf Coast.
Biology: Red Lionfish feed on crustaceans, other invertebrates, and over 40 different species of fish. They forage among coral reefs and are very opportunistic. Red Lionfish are also known to adapt to new prey items quickly, which allows them to infiltrate novel habitats with ease. In addition to aggressively feeding, Red Lionfish are quite fecund. Females are able to lay eggs every 4 days in the Bahamas, and can spawn throughout the year. This means that female Lionfish are able to lay about 2 Million eggs annually! This amazing fecundity, combined with their aggressiveness makes Red Lionfish a dangerous invasive species for indigenous coral reef ecosystems.
History: It is speculated that the Red Lionfish was introduced to United States waters sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. One hypothesized path of introduction was during Hurricane Andrew, which is thought to have destroyed an aquarium, releasing its contents that were washed away into the ocean. However, the level of genetic diversity among the lionfish across its current introduced range indicates that this was certainly not the sole source of the fish.
The most probable method of introduction is via the aquarium trade; owners often dump unwanted pets into the ocean when they become too large or expensive to keep any longer. Releasing lionfish and other aquarium fish, animals and plants can cause incredible destruction. Find out more here and Never Dump Your Tank.
U.S. Habitat: Red Lionfish prefer to live near reefs in depths between 10-175m. Red Lionfish like all others in the Scorpionfish family camouflage themselves at the reef bottom. Their brilliant colors allows them to both stand out and warn others of their toxicity.
Native Origin: Occurs in the West Pacific ocean.
U.S. Present: Currently (2020), the Red Lionfish has spread far and wide in the Western Hemisphere. It dominates coral reef habitats in many areas of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and southern Atlantic Coast of the U.S. Red Lionfish have been spotted as far up the Atlantic Coast as Massachussetts and along the Atlantic coast of northern South America.
Current distribution maps are available from: the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database.
Distribution in Texas: In 2011 Red Lionfish were first spotted in the NOAA Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary (roughly 105 miles from the Texas shore) and by 2015 over 2600 Red Lionfish were found at the islands of the sanctuary. They are being found throughout the Gulf of Mexico down to South Padre.
May be confused for other Scorpionfish, but most probably can be mistaken for the Devil Lionfish, Pterois miles, a close relative and also an invasive, though not as prevalent as the Red Lionfish Pterois volitans.
Various methods for management have been undertaken along United States waters. These activities include spearing, bagging, or simply marking the location of the Red Lionfish by divers. Scientists and other officials have relied on divers and snorkelers to locate Red Lionfish so they may be removed. One method of controlling the Lionfish is by killing the fish for human consumption. NOAA's "Eat Lionfish" campaign is designed to promote the eating of Red Lionfish as a means of reducing population numbers. NOAA offers methods for filleting the fish to avoid the venomous spines. Red Lionfish are a delicacy in some cultures and are even a base ingredient in bouillabaisse.
Courtenay WR (1995) Marine fish introductions in southeastern Florida. American Fisheries Society Introduced Fish Section Newsletter 1995(14):2–3
Meister, H. S., Wyanski, D. M., Loefer, J. K., Ross, S. W., Quattrini, A. M., & Sulak, K. J. (2005). Further evidence for the invasion and establishment of Pterois volitans (Teleostei: Scorpaenidae) along the Atlantic coast of the United States. Southeastern Naturalist, 4(2), 193-206.
Ray C, Coates CW (1958) A case of poisoning by the lion fish, Pterois volitans. Copeia 1958(3):235
Whitfield, Paula, Todd Gardner, and Stephen Vives. "Biological invasion of the Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois volitans along the Atlantic coast of North America." Marine Ecology Progress Series. 235. (2002): 289-297.