Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide


Pterois volitans



Pterois volitans (lionfish)


  • Last modified
  • 25 September 2018
  • Datasheet Type(s)
  • Invasive Species
  • Preferred Scientific Name
  • Pterois volitans
  • Preferred Common Name
  • lionfish
  • Taxonomic Tree
  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •   Kingdom: Metazoa
  •     Phylum: Chordata
  •       Subphylum: Vertebrata
  •         Class: Actinopterygii
  • Summary of Invasiveness
  • P. volitansis known as a venomous coral reef fish from the Indian and western Pacific oceans. It is the first Indo-Pacific marine fish to become established in Atlantic waters. It was li...

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Pterois volitans (red or common lionfish); adult. Tasik Ria, Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia. October, 2006.
CaptionPterois volitans (red or common lionfish); adult. Tasik Ria, Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia. October, 2006.
Copyright©Jens Petersen - CC BY 2.5
Pterois volitans (red or common lionfish); adult. Tasik Ria, Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia. October, 2006.
AdultPterois volitans (red or common lionfish); adult. Tasik Ria, Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia. October, 2006.©Jens Petersen - CC BY 2.5
Pterois volitans (red or common lionfish); adults, captive specimens. USA.
CaptionPterois volitans (red or common lionfish); adults, captive specimens. USA.
Copyright©Joseph LaForest/University of Georgia/ - CC BY-NC 3.0 US
Pterois volitans (red or common lionfish); adults, captive specimens. USA.
AdultsPterois volitans (red or common lionfish); adults, captive specimens. USA.©Joseph LaForest/University of Georgia/ - CC BY-NC 3.0 US


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Preferred Scientific Name

  • Pterois volitans (Linnaeus, 1758)

Preferred Common Name

  • lionfish

Other Scientific Names

  • Gasterosteus volitans Linnaeus
  • Pterois cristatus Swainson, 1839
  • Pterois geniserra Cuvier, 1829
  • Pterois lunulata Temminck & Schlegel, 1843
  • Pterois volitans castus Whitley, 1951
  • Pterois zebra Quoy & Gaimard, 1825

International Common Names

  • English: butterfly cod; common lionfish; fire fish; ornate butterfly-cod; red fire fish; red lionfish; scorpion-cod; turkeyfish; zebra fish
  • French: laffe vollant; poisson scorpion; poisson-dindon; poissoolant volant
  • Arabic: deek al bahar; dijajah

Local Common Names

  • Indonesia: peacock lionfish
  • Netherlands: koraalduivel

Summary of Invasiveness

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P. volitansis known as a venomous coral reef fish from the Indian and western Pacific oceans. It is the first Indo-Pacific marine fish to become established in Atlantic waters. It was likely first introduced off the Florida coast in the early to mid-1990s. For the past few years members of this species have been collected, photographed and observed from southern Florida to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and juvenile lionfish have been collected from Long Island, New York and Bermuda. The species is also spreading rapidly through the Caribbean. The large scale distribution of this invasive species over such a short time period, along with the presence of juveniles, suggests that lionfish are reproducing (Ruiz-Caruz et al., 2006). Along the North Carolina coast both the number and spatial distribution of lionfish have increased. In August 2000, there were three lionfish reported in three locations. By October 2002, 49 lionfish were reported in 15 different locations. Dispersal of lionfish in 2002 appears to have been both inshore and offshore of the lionfish locations in 2001. Lionfish have also been sighted in waters deeper than originally anticipated (Whitfield et al., 2006). The initial introduction was thought to have been through aquarium releases off the Florida coast during Hurricane Andrew, but this is now thought unlikely, with multiple aquarium releases in Florida considered a more likely cause. It is unknown what effects on the ecosystem this marine invasive fish will have along the Atlantic coast of the United States. Whitfield et al. (2002) reported that there should be a cause for concern as they are predators and appear to be permanent residents. ISSG (2010) added that this is the first time aquarium releases have resulted in the successful establishment of non-native marine fish.

Taxonomic Tree

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  • Domain: Eukaryota
  •     Kingdom: Metazoa
  •         Phylum: Chordata
  •             Subphylum: Vertebrata
  •                 Class: Actinopterygii
  •                     Order: Scorpaeniformes
  •                         Suborder: Scorpaenoidei
  •                             Family: Scorpaenidae
  •                                 Genus: Pterois
  •                                     Species: Pterois volitans

Notes on Taxonomy and Nomenclature

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Schultz (1986) reported that few synonyms to Pterois volitans exist and only Pterois miles (Bennett, 1828) has received serious consideration as a separate species. He examined specimens throughout the Indo-Pacific and concluded that two allopatric species can be recognized as P. miles in the Indian Ocean and as P. volitans in the western and south-central Pacific and Western Australia.

More recently Schofield et al. (2010) agreed with Schultz but added that the range extends to Sumatra where the two species co-occur. The gap of more than two decades between the two studies could lead us to believe that over the years the species has extended its range by natural dispersal. The number of soft rays on the fins is normally used to distinguish between species belonging to the same genera. However, reports regarding the number of the soft rays of P. miles do not agree (see descriptions for this species given by Schofield et al. (2010) and Froese and Pauly (2010)).

Recent genetic work has revealed that the Atlantic population of lionfish is comprised primarily of P. volitans with a small number of P. miles (Hamner et al., 2007).


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The lionfish is considered one of the most splendid looking species in the aquarium trade. It has a beautifully banded head and body with reddish, golden brown or white bands stretching across a yellow background. The dorsal and anal fins possess dark rows of spots on a clear background. However the colour may vary according to habitat as coastal species generally appear darker, sometimes almost black in estuaries (Froese and Pauly, 2010). Kuiter and Tonozuka (2001) described lionfish as possessing tentacles above their eyes.

Fishelson (1975) reported that competing males use their spines and fins in agonistic visual displays.

P. volitans have 13 poisonous dorsal spines; 9-11 dorsal soft rays; and 14 long, feather-like pectoral rays. The anal fin has 3 spines and 6-7 rays. Scales are cycloid type (Myers, 1999; Froese and Pauly, 2010). The adults of this species are normally solitary but aggregate for courtship and mating when they become aggressive towards same species (intruders) and other fish. P. volitans can grow to a maximum length of 38 cm. However Masterson (2007) claimed that a specimen collected on the U.S. east coast, caught via hook and line off North Carolina in 2004, was over 43 cm long and weighed approximately 1.1 kg. Lionfish have a life span of 10-15 years (Froese and Pauly, 2010). P. volitans live in small groups as juveniles and while mating (Robins, 2010).


The teeth of the red lionfish are numerous, but very small. They occur on the upper and lower jaws in densely packed bilateral clusters and in a small patch on the anterior roof of the mouth. Functionally, these teeth appear to be limited to grasping prey captured by the extraordinarily quick predatory strike of this species (Robins, 2010).


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The native distribution of the red lionfish is restricted to reef habitats of the Indo-Pacific. This distribution encompasses an enormous area extending from Western Australia and Malaysia east to French Polynesia and the 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 (Randall et al., 1997).

Froese and Pauly (2010) and Robins (2010) reported that P. volitans are replaced by the very similar P. miles from the Red Sea to Sumatra. Robins (2010) even claimed that a published record of P. volitans from Inhaca Island, Mozambique, is presumably an error and more likely represents the more westerly P. miles. However scientists working on fish parasites of the northern Red Sea claimed that they collected their specimens of P. volitans from Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt (Hassanine, 2006) and from Eilat Gulf, Israel (Paperna, 1972). Since both of these study sites are in the area of the north Red Sea it possible that both references relied on same source for identification despite a time span of more than 30 years between the two studies. Kimball et al. (2004) studying the thermal tolerance of red lionfish on the east coast of the USA used the term P. volitans/ miles complex to describe lionfish they studied (apparently to avoid confusion).Hare and Whitfield (2003) citing the work Kochzius et al. (2003) which confirmed genetic differences between P. miles and P. volitans, had argued that Kochzius et al's work was inconclusive regarding the existence of two species or two populations of one species. Hence they too decided to use the term P. volitans/ miles perhaps to avoid confusion.

The introduced range includes much of the Caribbean and the southern part of the east coast of the USA. Up to date information can be found on the map published by the United States Geological Survey.

Distribution Table

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The distribution in this summary table is based on all the information available. When several references are cited, they may give conflicting information on the status. Further details may be available for individual references in the Distribution Table Details section which can be selected by going to Generate Report.

Continent/Country/RegionDistributionLast ReportedOriginFirst ReportedInvasiveReferenceNotes

Sea Areas

Atlantic, NorthwestPresent, few occurrencesIntroduced Not invasive Schofield, 2009
Atlantic, Western CentralPresentIntroduced Invasive Schofield, 2009
Indian Ocean, EasternPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010


ChinaPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
-Hong KongPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Christmas Island (Indian Ocean)PresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Cocos IslandsPresentNative Not invasive Randall et al., 1997
IndiaPresentNative Not invasive Kumaraguru and Rajkumar, 2004Vellar Estuary
-LakshadweepPresentNative Not invasive Kapoor et al., 2002Known from west coast and Laccadives
IndonesiaPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010Commercial trading
IsraelPresentNative Not invasive Paperna, 1972From Eilat and Suez
JapanPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
-Ryukyu ArchipelagoPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Korea, DPRPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Korea, Republic ofPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
MalaysiaPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
MaldivesPresentNative Not invasive ISSG, 2010Fishbase reported status as questionable
PhilippinesPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Sri LankaPresentNative Not invasive ISSG, 2010Fishbase reported status as questionable
ThailandPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
VietnamPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010


EgyptPresentNative Not invasive Hassanine, 2006Off the coast of Sharm El-Sheikh
MauritiusPresentNative Not invasive ISSG, 2010Fishbase reported status as questionable
MozambiquePresentNative Not invasive ISSG, 2010Fishbase reported status as questionable
SeychellesPresentNative Not invasive ISSG, 2010Fishbase reported status as questionable

North America

BermudaPresentIntroduced Invasive Gonzalez et al., 2009
MexicoPresentIntroduced Not invasive Schofield, 2009
USAPresentIntroduced Invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
-FloridaPresentIntroduced1990s Invasive Albins and Hixon, 2008
-GeorgiaPresentIntroduced2000 Invasive Morris et al., 2008
-MassachusettsPresent, few occurrencesIntroducedKimball et al., 2004Juveniles seen but not considered to have established as it is too cold
-New YorkPresent, few occurrencesIntroduced2001Kimball et al., 2004P. volitans and P. miles. Juveniles seen but not considered established as it is too cold
-North CarolinaPresentIntroduced Invasive Hare and Whitfield, 2003; Schofield, 2009Cape Hatteras
-Rhode IslandPresent, few occurrencesIntroduced2001 Invasive Kimball et al., 2004
-South CarolinaPresentIntroduced2000 Invasive Morris et al., 2008
-VirginiaPresent, few occurrencesIntroduced2001Kimball et al., 2004Juveniles seen but not considered established as it is too cold

Central America and Caribbean

AnguillaPresentIntroduced2010Schofield, 2010
BahamasPresentIntroduced1996 Invasive Albins and Hixon, 2008; Freshwater et al., 2009
BarbadosPresentIntroduced2011NationNews, 2011; Oxenford, 2012
BelizePresentIntroduced Invasive Gonzalez et al., 2009
British Virgin IslandsPresentIntroducedSchofield, 2010
Cayman IslandsPresentIntroduced Invasive Schofield, 2009
Costa RicaPresentIntroduced Invasive Schofield, 2009
CubaPresentIntroduced Invasive Chevalier et al., 2008
Dominican RepublicPresentIntroduced2008 Invasive Guerrero and Luis, 2008Observed in the National Submarine Park of Monte Cristi
GuadeloupePresentIntroduced2010Schofield, 2010
HaitiPresentIntroducedMorris and Akins, 2009
HondurasPresentIntroduced Invasive Schofield, 2009
JamaicaPresentIntroduced Invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Netherlands AntillesPresentIntroduced Invasive Schofield, 2009
NicaraguaPresentIntroduced2009Schofield, 2010
PanamaPresent, few occurrencesIntroducedSchofield, 2009Not yet established
Puerto RicoPresentIntroducedMorris and Akins, 2009
Saint Kitts and NevisPresentIntroduced2010Schofield, 2010
Turks and Caicos IslandsPresent, few occurrencesIntroduced Invasive Schofield, 2009
United States Virgin IslandsPresentIntroduced Invasive REEF, 2008

South America

ColombiaPresent, few occurrencesIntroduced Not invasive Gonzalez et al., 2009Not yet established
VenezuelaPresentIntroduced2009Schofield, 2010


AustraliaPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010From the Territory of Ashmore and the Cartier Islands
-Australian Northern TerritoryPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
-New South WalesPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
-QueenslandPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
-South AustraliaPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Cook IslandsPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
FijiPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
French PolynesiaPresentNativeFroese and Pauly, 2010Occurs in the Austral Islands
GuamPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010Range extends to Saipan
Marshall IslandsPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Micronesia, Federated states ofPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
New CaledoniaPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
New ZealandPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Norfolk IslandPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
PalauPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Papua New GuineaPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
Pitcairn IslandPresentNativeFroese and Pauly, 2010
SamoaPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
TongaPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010
VanuatuPresentNative Not invasive Froese and Pauly, 2010

History of Introduction and Spread

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P. volitans is one of the most commonly kept aquarium fish in many parts of the world (Froese and Pauly, 2010). No other country apart from the USA and countries of the Caribbean sea considers it as an invasive species. Even in the USA it is one of the 10 most valuable marine fish imported to the country. Ruiz Carus et al. (2006) reported that 7562 lionfish were imported to Tampa, Florida within 6 months in 2003 by the local aquarium industry.

Schofield (2009) indicated that despite many past records of lionfish sightings, the first confirmed record of lionfish occurrence in the USA was a specimen taken by a lobster fisherman off Dania, Florida in October 1985. The most frequently documented story about the release of lionfish in the eastern United States is the that of Courtenay (1995) who reported that the escape took place in Florida on August 24, 1992 when six lionfish were freed when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a large marine aquarium on a waterfront porch at the edge of Biscayne Bay and that these lionfish were seen alive nearby several days later. However, Courtenay and others now consider this unlikley to be the cause of the current invasion, on the grounds of the above-mentioned earlier report and of genetic studies indicating a larger founder population. Multiple aquarium releases are now considered to be a more likely cause (Morell, 2010; Betancur-R et al., 2011)

By 1994 sporadic observations by divers had been reported of lionfish off Palm Beach and Boca Raton in Florida. More annotated observations (videos, photos and specimens) have been reported since then. However Hare and Whitfield (2003) were not sure if the numbers of the lionfish was increasing or the increase in the public awareness had made people report their sightings. Regardless of the reason most of these observations demonstrate that lionfish adults are distributed along the southeast United States continental shelf from south Florida to Cape Hatteras (Whitfield et al., 2006).

The lionfish have gradually moved to invade the Caribbean and have been spotted along the eastern seaboard of the USA, reaching as far north as Rhode Island and as far south as Venezuela. They are now spreading rapidly (Betancur-R et al, 2011). Increasing frequent sightings of lionfish at the south-eastern end of Exuma sound (Bahamas) have been documented by a laboratory team working in the area (Hixon et al., 2009). Their findings have provided an unprecedented opportunity to study the ecological interactions of lionfish with Caribbean coral reef fish communities from the very beginning of the invasion. In the summer of 2005, they found their first lionfish near Lee Stocking Island (LSI). They believe that between the autumn of 2006 and summer of 2007, the lionfish population in the Bahamas increased substantially. During the summer of 2007, over 100 lionfish were spotted around LSI signifying a rapid expansion within the Bahamas (Hixon et al., 2009).


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Introduced toIntroduced fromYearReasonIntroduced byEstablished in wild throughReferencesNotes
Natural reproductionContinuous restocking
Bahamas USA 1996 Yes Albins and Hixon (2008) Natural reproduction
Florida 1992 Aquaculture (pathway cause) ,
Flooding and other natural disasters (pathway cause)
Yes Wood (2001) Includes individual release of unwanted pets
Jamaica USA 1996 Yes Albins and Hixon (2008)

Risk of Introduction

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Since the lionfish is listed as invasive species only in the USA and the Caribbean most of the work on their invasiveness has been done in that area. Morris (2009) argued that as a venomous scorpionfish, lionfish are considered invasive by definition because of their probable impacts to native reef fish communities (Albins and Hixon, 2008; Morris and Atkins, 2009) and to human health (Vetrano et al., 2002).

Hixon et al. (2009) reported that lionfish have the potential to drastically reduce the abundance of coral reef fishes and leave behind a devastated ecosystem. They suggested that with few known natural predators, the lionfish poses a major threat to coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean region by decreasing survival of a wide range of native reef animals via both predation and competition. While native groupers may prey on lionfish, they have been overfished and therefore unlikely to significantly reduce the effects of invasive lionfish on coral reef communities. Albins and Hixon (2008) conducted a controlled field experiment using a matrix of translocated coral and artificial patch reefs to examine the short-term effects of lionfish on the recruitment of native reef fishes in the Bahamas. They found that lionfish caused significant reductions in the recruitment of native fishes by an average of 79% over the 5 week duration of the experiment. They propose that this strong effect on a key life stage of coral-reef fish suggests that invasive lionfish are already having substantial negative impacts on Atlantic coral reefs. Hixon et al. (2009) on one occasion observed a lionfish consuming 20 small wrasses during a 30 minute period. They also observed that it was not unusual to see lionfish consuming prey up to two-thirds of its own length. Morris et al. (2008) claimed that the lionfish invasion in the northwestern Atlantic and the Caribbean represents one of the most rapid marine finfish invasions in history. Green and Cote (2008) estimated that the number of lionfish had increased 17 times between 2004 and 2008 in North Carolina.


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In general, marine fish that do not have the ability to survive in brackish or fresh water at a certain stage of their lifecycle seldom become invasive (A Gittenberger, Gimaris, The Netherlands, personal communication, 2010).

Habitat List

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Coral reefs Principal habitat Natural

Biology and Ecology

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P. volitans are gonochoristic, i.e. males and females exhibit sexual dimorphism only during reproduction. The male becomes darker and their stripes are much less visible, and any female whose eggs are ripe takes on a much paler hue with many areas of the body becoming silvery white. Lionfish samples collected off North Carolina and in the Bahamas suggest that lionfish are reproducing during all seasons of the year (Morris, 2009).

P. volitans perform external fertilization of eggs and a suite of complex courtship and mating behaviours (Ruiz-Carus et al., 2006). The adults are generally solitary outside of the reproductive season, but during courtship, males will aggregate with multiple females to form groups of three to eight fish.

The courtship has been described by divers and aquarists as a dance that entails the couple diving down to the seafloor, several times, and then coming face-to-face, they slowly rise while circling, as if doing a waltz. Just before reaching the surface, the female will expel a pair of mucus-encapsulated clusters, containing 2000-15000 eggs which float to the surface. Once the mucus tube reaches the surface, the male will release his sperm into the egg tube so fertilization can take place. After about 15 minutes these tubes fill up with seawater and become oval balls 2 to 5 cm in diameter. Within these mucosal balls lie one to two layers of individual eggs. After spawning the fish part and go their separate ways (Fishelson, 1975).

Egg development

Twelve hours after fertilization the embryo begins to form. Only 18 hours after fertilization, the head and eyes become moderately developed. Eventually, invading microbes deteriorate the mucus walls and 36 hours after fertilization, the larvae hatch. Four days after fertilization, the larvae are already good swimmers and are able to begin feeding on small ciliates (Fishelson, 1975; Wood, 2001). The planktonic larval stage lasts between 25 to 40 days before they settle out of the water column at a size of 10-12 mm in length (Morris, 2009; Robins, 2010).

Judging on the size, morphology and larval life of other species belong to Pterois, lionfish larvae have a large head, a relatively long and triangular snout, long and serrated head spines, a robust pelvic spine, and pigment confined to the pectoral fins. The larvae size has been estimated to be about 1.5 mm (Leis and Rennis, 2000).


Morris and Akins (2009) studying the ecology of P. volitans in the Bahamian archipelago found that the adults prey mainly upon fish (78%) and crustaceans (14%). They found that twenty-one families and 41 species of fish were represented in the diet of lionfish; the top 10 families of dietary importance were Gobiidae, Labridae, Grammatidae, Apogonidae, Pomacentridae, Serranidae, Blenniidae, Atherinidae, Mullidae, and Monacanthidae. They reported that younger lionfish mainly feed on crustaceans but increase their intake of fish as they grew older. Sano et al. (1984) also reported that the food of lionfish in Ryukyu Island consists of 95% fish and 5% crustaceans and other benthic invertebrates such as amphipods and isopods. Whitney (2003) reported lionfish in Columbia feed mostly on crustaceans (as well as other invertebrates).

P. volitans are very voracious feeders as they consume an average of 8.2 times their body weight per year and as juveniles they consume 5.5-13.5 g per day and 14.6 g a day as adults (Wood, 2001).

Lionfish hunt small fishes, shrimps, and crabs at night, using their widespread pectoral fins trapping prey into a corner, stunning it and then swallowing it. The lionfish glides along the substrate (rocks or sand) and vibrates the rays on its fins in order move the prey out of hiding. They are very swift in catching and swallowing their victims (Sano et al., 1984; Froese and Pauly, 2010).

Most literature, by hobbyists and scientists, state that lionfish are nocturnal and feed at night especially the first hours of the night when the coral community becomes active with night feeders coming out of their hiding places (Sano et al., 1984; Froese and Pauly, 2010). Conversely, Morris and Akins (2009) reported that lionfish were found to be diurnal feeders with the highest predation occurring in the morning (08:00–11:00). This contradiction could be as a result to availability of the food in a particular habitat. Robins (2010) suggested that despite lionfish being known to be nocturnal they have been observed to feed during the day and studies of captive specimens imply that lionfish that have taken up refuge may simply be those individuals that have recently fed and are full.

Fishelson (1997) found that under experimental conditions, the lionfish are inactive and only come out of their hiding places to feed on as many fish as possible when fish are plentiful, fasting when food is scarce. When food is plentiful, P. volitans becomes full and may not eat for at least 24 hours.

Lionfish invest most of their energy in growing to a large body size early in life. This tactic allows them to be more likely to avoid attack by predators and increase their chances of mating successfully (Wood, 2001).


Evidence of cannibalism in lionfish has been either anecdotal or found in experimental work. NOAA’s (2004) Coral Reef News reviewed work suggesting that there was some evidence of cannibalism amongst lionfish as remains of two lionfish were found in the stomach of other lionfish sharing the same tank. A team from Kean University experimenting on lionfish demonstrated that they showed signs of cannibalism (Lane et al., undated). Morris (2009) observed one instance of cannibalism of lionfish in their experimental tank. However he quoted the work of Smith and Reay (1991) who suggested that cannibalism in teleost fishes while in captivity is common and may not reflect a natural event. Morris (2009) also mentioned that diet analyses of >1,000 adult lionfish from the Atlantic have provided no evidence of cannibalism.

Lionfish envenomation

Gallagher (2001) described Pterois the least venomous of the Scorpaenidae. Lionfish elongated dorsal spines, pelvic spines and anal spines all have a pair of venom glands at each of their bases and a loose sheath covers each spine. The sheath is pushed down the spine during envenomation, causing compression of the venom glands. Venom then travels along a groove in the spine into the wound. However, the fan-like array of pectoral fins, which may appear superficially the same as the dorsal fins in structure, are not equipped with these glands.

Lionfish use their venomous fins to sting as a defensive response, typically to being cornered or harassed in some way, with the dorsal spines being the predominant weapon. In the wild, they are not aggressive towards people and will almost always keep their distance when given the opportunity, hence pose a relatively low risk. Although not deadly, the lionfish’s sting is extremely painful and causes swelling, redness, bleeding, nausea, numbness, joint pain, anxiety, headache, disorientation, dizziness, nausea, paralysis, and convulsions (Ruiz-Carus et al., 2006; Fatherree, 2008).

Any broken spines should be removed, if possible, and the affected area soaked in non-scalding hot water (100-110°F or 38-43°C.) for 15-20 minutes. Lionfish venom contains proteins that are denatured by heat, thus preventing them from spreading in the bloodstream (Gallagher, 2001).

Latitude/Altitude Ranges

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Latitude North (°N)Latitude South (°S)Altitude Lower (m)Altitude Upper (m)
43 40

Water Tolerances

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ParameterMinimum ValueMaximum ValueTypical ValueStatusLife StageNotes
Ammonia [unionised] (mg/l) 0 Optimum
Ammonium [ionised] (mg/l) 0 Optimum
Depth (m b.s.l.) 1.4 50 Optimum
Dissolved oxygen (mg/l) 6 8 Optimum
Hardness (mg/l of Calcium Carbonate) 140 220 Optimum
Salinity (part per thousand) 30 33 Optimum 36 tolerated
Water pH (pH) 8.2 8.4 Optimum
Water temperature (ºC temperature) 22 28 Optimum Stop feeding at 16, lethal at 10

Natural enemies

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Natural enemyTypeLife stagesSpecificityReferencesBiological control inBiological control on
Haliotrema pteroisi Parasite to species Paperna, 1972
Hamacreadium pteroisi Parasite to species Nagaty and Abdelaal, 1962
Proneohelicometra aegyptensis Parasite to species Hassanine, 2006

Notes on Natural Enemies

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Lionfish have few known natural predators but groupers have been found with lionfish remains in their stomachs. However, studies of the closely related P. miles may provide us with some indication of the natural history of P. volitans. In the Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea, the piscivorous cornetfish, Fistularia commersoni, appears to be a predator of P. miles. Judging by the presence of a specimen of P. miles in the stomach of a large F. commersoni, and its particular orientation therein, it was concluded that cornetfish in the Red Sea may utilize their ambush tactics to seize lionfish safely from the rear, consuming them tail first. As cornetfishes are widespread, effective piscivore species sympatric with P. volitans, they may also predate upon them (Fishelson, 1975).


Morris (2009) reported that knowledge of the parasites infecting native and non-native lionfish is scant. No comprehensive survey of protozoan or metazoan parasites of either host (P. miles or P. volitans) has been published.

However some isolated studies, mainly in the Red Sea area, recorded the presence of trematode parasites on wild-caught specimens. Hamacreadium pteroisi and Haliotremapteroisi were found on lionfish specimens collected from two areas of the North Sea; Ghardaga in Egypt (Nagaty and Abdelaal, 1962) and southwest of the Elite Gulf in Israel (Paperna, 1972).

The intestinal trematode Proneohelicometra aegyptensis (Opecoelidae) was also isolated from specimens of P. volitans from Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in the Red Sea (Hassanine, 2006).

Copepods and leeches were reported from specimens from Japan (Paperna, 1976; Dojiri and Ho, 1988). A leech (Myzobdella lugubris) (Hirudinea, Piscicolidae) measuring 22 mm was found attached to the middle portion of the tongue of a lionfish caught on the Florida coast (Ruiz-Carus et al., 2006).

Few studies have been carried out on endoparasites; however, a new myxosporean species, Sphaeromyxa zaharoni was found in a lionfish gall bladder from the Red Sea (Diamant et al., 2004).

Recent observations of lionfish collected off North Carolina and in the Bahamas have found a low prevalence of endo- and ectoparasites when compared to parasites of native reef fishes (Morris, 2009).

Means of Movement and Dispersal

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NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) (2010) suggested the following suspected or possible sources of lionfish spread:

· A group of six Volitans lionfish accidentally released in Biscayne Bay, Florida, when an ocean side aquarium burst during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

· A large casino aquarium in the Bahamas is known to have kept lionfish in an open system, from which eggs and/or larvae could have been flushed into the sea.

Unsubstantiated reports suggest that an unscrupulous dive operator may have planted a population of lionfish at a site off the Carolinas to create an unusual destination for his clients.

It is possible that larvae or juvenile Pterois specimens may have been released in the ballast water of one or more ships.

Releases of individual lionfish by home aquarists may have contributed to the creation of a successful breeding population (NOAA, 2010).

The northward transport of lionfish eggs and larvae by the Gulf Stream has most likely enhanced dispersal of lionfish along the Atlantic coast which most likely explains the lionfish sightings in New York and New England. Lionfish adapt to many different habitats. In the Bahamas, they have been found at depths ranging from about four feet (1.2 m) to more than 450 feet (137 m) on reef walls, patch reefs, rocky areas, hard bottoms with ledges and crevices, mangrove creeks, isolated coral heads, blue holes, ship wrecks, man-made structures, and various collections of debris. They have been described as “habitat generalists,” as they only require a habitat that provides shade and a surface against which to trap their prey. Lionfish in Sri Lanka are more likely to be found on rocky reefs rather than coral formations, while juveniles are common in estuaries (NOAA, 2010).

Pathway Causes

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CauseNotesLong DistanceLocalReferences
Flooding and other natural disastersUSA, Hurricane Andrew. Now thought unlikely to be the main cause of the invasion. Yes Courtenay, 1995
Intentional releasePeople releasing their pet fish when they become too big for their tanks Yes NOAA, 2004
Pet tradeIndo-Pacific Yes Yes

Pathway Vectors

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VectorNotesLong DistanceLocalReferences
Ship ballast water and sedimentA possible route of introduction Yes Whitfield et al., 2002

Impact Summary

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Economic/livelihood Positive
Environment (generally) Negative
Human health Negative

Economic Impact

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P. volitans are the most commonly displayed and sold member of the family Scorpaenidae. Areas where the lionfish is found count among the best attractions of diving in a tropical coral reef. Also, in the native range lionfish are popular table fish as well as aquarium trade species (Froese and Pauly, 2010).

However as tourism is an important industry and accounts for half the employment in the Bahamas, the local people worry that if the lionfish continue to devour colourful reef fish, divers will go elsewhere (Dornfeld, 2009).

In the western Atlantic, lionfish feed on juvenile of grouper and parrotfish which are important fish for human consumption (Gupta, 2009).

Environmental Impact

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Ruiz-Carus et al. (2006) reported that lionfish may, directly and indirectly, cause harm to coral reef ecosystems. As aggressive ambush predators with few predators of their own in their introduced range, lionfish can quickly and alarmingly reduce local native reef fish populations to the point where native piscivores (fish predators) cannot compete for these prey animals. This in-turn can cause a reduction in the growth and survival of the native predators.

Stomach content analyses of lionfish reveal a wide diversity in prey species and size classes. Lionfish eat nearly anything that will fit into their mouths. Their diet consists of numerous shrimp, crabs, and other crustaceans, including juveniles of the commercially important spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) (CoRIS, 2009). Lionfish are also responsible for great reductions in fish numbers on reefs where they become established. They prey on herbivorous fishes that consume macro-algae and help protect corals from algal overgrowth. In addition to the species listed in the Threatened Species table, lionfish also compete for food with Serranids in the Bahaman archipelago (Morris and Akins, 2009). Scientists have concluded that lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be extirpated using conventional methods. Due to their fecundity, rapid and wide-spread distribution, adaptability to a variety of shallow and deep habitats, and behaviour, scientists believe the lionfish invasion could become the most disastrous in history, devastating coral reef ecosystems throughout the Americas. As lionfish colonize more territory in the Caribbean, they may have a devastating effect on coral reefs already stressed by climate change, pollution, disease, overfishing, sedimentation, and other stressors (CoRIS, 2009).

Threatened Species

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Threatened SpeciesConservation StatusWhere ThreatenedMechanismReferencesNotes
Epinephelus striatus (nassau grouper)No details No detailsBahamasPredationMorris and Akins, 2009
Ocyurus chrysurus (yellowtail snapper)No details No detailsBahamasPredationMorris and Akins, 2009

Social Impact

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Lionfish are a favourite fish species for scuba divers wishing to take photographs as they are a highly attractive species that sits relatively still (A Gittenberger, Gimaris, The Netherlands, personal communication, 2010). However, they have sharp and venomous spines on their fins, and although their venom is not lethal, swimmers, snorkellers, divers, and fishermen are at risk from their painful sting. The most common sting symptoms are pain, swelling and sweating. However, at least in one case, the victim experienced cardiovascular collapse (Saunders and Lifton, 1960). The most recommended treatment for lionfish sting it to immerse the affected area into hot water of 45°C for 10-30 minutes; however, Vetrano et al. (2002) reported a case when lionfish envenomation failed to respond to warm water immersion.

Risk and Impact Factors

Top of page Invasiveness
  • Proved invasive outside its native range
  • Has a broad native range
  • Abundant in its native range
  • Tolerates, or benefits from, cultivation, browsing pressure, mutilation, fire etc
  • Capable of securing and ingesting a wide range of food
  • Long lived
  • Fast growing
  • Has high reproductive potential
Impact outcomes
  • Altered trophic level
  • Ecosystem change/ habitat alteration
  • Negatively impacts human health
  • Negatively impacts aquaculture/fisheries
  • Threat to/ loss of native species
Impact mechanisms
  • Causes allergic responses
  • Competition - monopolizing resources
  • Competition
  • Poisoning
  • Predation
  • Rapid growth
Likelihood of entry/control
  • Highly likely to be transported internationally accidentally
  • Highly likely to be transported internationally deliberately
  • Difficult to identify/detect in the field
  • Difficult/costly to control

Uses List

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  • Pet/aquarium trade

Prevention and Control

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Although lionfish in their native range are considered one of the most valuable species as an aquarium fish and as food fish, lionfish in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean and the southwestern Caribbean Sea are recognized as a major threat to their ecosystem. The authorities and the public in those countries are concerned that this species is causing dramatic effects on people’s safety, biodiversity and habitat composition (Gonzalez, 2009).

However, ISSG (2010) reported that no specific preventative or control activities information has been recorded. Nevertheless countries, especially the USA and the Caribbean islands where lionfish has an established population or their establishment is imminent are putting together mitigating measures to deal with it as a potential threat. They are taking the following measures in order to control the problem as eradication is not likely (Whitfield, 2002; Morris, 2009).

  1. Good planning
In the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) Claydon and Calosso (2008) suggested that controlling the spread of the fish should be done before the species establish a reproducing population and should be an ongoing practice. Once the population has established (as the planktonic larvae will continue spreading) the eradication process becomes hard and costly.
  1. Involving people and community
TCI already has a workforce that is ideally suited to assist in limiting the spread of the lionfish; there are a relatively large number of fishermen and marine tourist operators that work on the small area of coastal waters that surrounds the TCI. Given sufficient incentives and minimal training these individuals could assist in an ongoing opportunistic eradication programme. Claydon and Calosso (2008) also recommended that a provision should be made such that the use of pole spears and Hawaiian slings in the capture of lionfish is not an offence under the TCI Fisheries Protection Ordinance.
Bermuda initiated a lionfish culling programme in 2008 that included giving training, issuing licenses, and a special dive flag allowing commercial and recreational fishermen to spear lionfish along near-shore reefs (Morris et al., 2008). Hence 31 volunteers have been issued special licenses by the Ministry of the Environment and Sports to engage in spear fishing of lionfish within the one mile limit that is legislated for spear fishing activities.
  1. Fisheries development
Work by Sri Balasubashini et al. (2006a, b) indicated that lionfish venom contains anti-tumor, hepato-protective, and anti-metastatic effects in mice, suggesting a promising application for cancer research. Depending on the outcome of this research, Morris (2009) hopes that this would lead to the subsequent demand for lionfish venom. Hence venom from invasive lionfish could assist with fishery development by becoming another incentive to catch the fish rather than let it go or sell it to hobby shops.
Since in its native range lionfish is used as food for the locals, the people of Bermuda have also actively engaged the public with educational seminars devoted to promoting lionfish as a food fish with the hopes that human consumption will support fishery development. To deal with the growing menace of lionfish in the Bahamas, a new organization called the Lionfish Hunters has been created to teach recreational divers and spear fishermen how to catch, handle and cook lionfish (Adams, 2009). 
  1. Undertake more research and use of new technology
To increase the ability to forecast the potential distribution and impact of this species in the Atlantic, Robins (2010) suggested that a variety of studies to further examine the biology of this species, their temperature tolerance, reproduction, foraging strategies, and predator defense should be undertaken. Recently, NOAA researchers have developed techniques to trap lionfish, thus providing a means of removal from deeper waters and larger areas that are impractical for diver removal. An early detection and rapid response programme has been developed (NOAA/REEF/USGS) in south Florida (a hotspot for marine introductions), which utilizes and coordinates resources from over 30 state, federal, and non-governmental organizations in the region. Workshops utilizing this model are being conducted in regions of the Caribbean to improve local response to marine invasions. Programmes such as this represent the first line of defense for marine introductions and should be endorsed and supported by local managers (Morris, 2009).
  1. Cooperation and liaison
Since 2000, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers have partnered with non-governmental organizations, academics, and other federal and state agencies to develop a programmatic response to the lionfish invasion (Morris, 2009), these include:
Centre for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (CCFHR)
National of Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA
Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF)
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)


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Links to Websites

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Florida Natural History Museum
NOAA coral reef information system


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USA: Centre for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research CCFHR, 101 Pivers Island Road, Beaufort, NC 28516,

USA: Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission National FWCC, 100 Eighth Avenue SE, St. Petersburg, FL, 33701-5020,

USA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/ National Centre for Research on Aquatic Invasive Species, Beaufort North Carolina,

USA: Reef Environmental Education Foundation REEF, REEF Headquarters P.O. Box 246,


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25/02/10 Original text by:

Tagried Kurwie, Mahurangi Technical Institute1 Glenmore Drive, Warkworth, New Zealand

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