Lionfish Species: Firefish, Turkeyfish and Invasive Species

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Clear-fin lionfish (Pterois radiata)

Currently there 12 recognized species in the Pterois genus. They are:
Common name — Scientific name (discover) — Where They are Found
1) Red lionfish — Pterois volitans (first described by Linnaeus in 1758) — Indo-Pacific region, Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea
2) Spot-fin lionfish — Pterois antennata (first described by Bloch in 1787) — tropical Indian and Western Pacific Oceans
3) Devil firefish — Pterois miles (first described by J. W. Bennett in 1828) — Indian Ocean, from the Red Sea, to South Africa, and to Indonesia
4) Clear-fin lionfish — Pterois radiata (first described by G. Cuvier in 1829) — Red Sea to Sodwana Bay, South Africa and to the Society Islands, north to the Ryukyu Islands, south to New Caledonia
5) Plaintail turkeyfish, soldier lionfish, or Russell's lionfish — Pterois russelii (first described by E. T. Bennett in 1831) — Persian Gulf and East Africa to New Guinea, south to Western Australia
6) Red Sea lionfish — Pterois cincta (first described by Rüppell in 1838) — Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Red Sea
7) Luna lionfish — Pterois lunulata (first described by Temminck & Schlegel in 1843) — Western Pacific Ocean
8) Hawaiian turkeyfish — Pterois sphex (first described by D. S. Jordan & Evermann in 1903) — Hawaii
9) African lionfish, frill-fin turkeyfish — Pterois mombasae (first described by J. L. B. Smith in 1957) — tropical Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific
10) Pterois brevipectoralis (first described by Mandritsa in 2002) — Western Indian Ocean
11) Andover lionfish — Pterois andover (first described by G. R. Allen & Erdmann in 2008) — Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and ranges as far as Sabah, Malaysia, and the Philippines
12) Pterois paucispinula (first described by Matsunuma & Motomura in 2014) — India to northern Australia (first described by Timor Sea); north to southern Japan; eastward to Wallis and Futuna Islands. [Source: Wikipedia]

Clear-fin lionfish (Pterois radiata), Red lionfish (Pterois volitans), and Devil firefish (Pterois miles) are the most commonly studied species in the genus. The red lion and Devil firefish are recent and significant invasive species in the west Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Mediterranean Sea..They are native to subtropical and tropical regions from southern Japan and Korea to the east coast of Australia, Indonesia, Micronesia, French Polynesia, and the South Pacific Ocean. The Devil firefish is also found in the Indian Ocean, from Sumatra to Sri Lanka and the Red Sea.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Red Lionfish

Red lionfish (Pterois volitans)

Red lionfish (Scientific name: Pterois volitans) is also known as the red firefish. It was the first lionfish described in science in 1758 no less than by Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern taxonomy, in his book, Systema Naturae 10th edition.. The average lifespan of the fish in the wild is 10 years. [Source: Mahya Wood, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

The Red lionfish in native to the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean and ranges from Australia and Malaysia to the Marquesas Islands and Oeno in the east, to southern Japan and southern Korea in the north and Lord Howe, Kermadec, and Austral Island to the south

Red lionfish is a popular aquarium fish. They were introduced to the Atlantic Ocean via Key Biscayne, Florida when a beachside aquarium broke during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The intentional release of aquarium pets has contributed to the Florida population.

Red lionfish is not currently listed as threatened or endangered. However, damage to coral reefs is expected to kill many of the fish and crustaceans, which lionfish depend on for food. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List: No special status; Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES): No special status

Red Lionfish Characteristics, Mating and Behavior

Red lionfish can grow to a maximum length of 38 centimeters (15 inches), They have a beautifully stripped head and body with reddish or golden brown bands stretching across a yellow background. The dorsal and anal fins possess dark rows of spots on a clear background. Red lionfish are differentiated from other scorpionfishes by having 13 rather than 12 poisonous dorsal spines and 14 long, feather-like pectoral rays. The anal fin has three spines and 6-7 rays. Other distinguishing characteristics of the fish include a bony ridge across the cheek and the flaps that partially cover both the eyes and nose. They also possess a "tentacle" above both eyes. /=\ [Source: Mahya Wood, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

According to Animal Diversity Web: Red lionfish live in small groups as juveniles and while mating. However, for the majority of their adult life they are solitary and will fiercely defend their home range against other individuals of both the same or different species using their poisonous dorsal spines. Only while courting will red lionfish aggregate with other individuals. In this special case, one male will aggregate with several females to form groups of 3-8 fish. /=\

Red lionfish (Pterois volitans)

During the mating season once a male has found a female to mate with, he courts her through a variety of visual and tactile behaviors, such as swimming around the female, quickly darting toward the surface, and then back to the female. Once in agreement of mating, both the male and female use variations of trembling their fins to accept each other before rising to the surface to mate. The female then releases her egg sack and the eggs are externally fertilized. The female then returns to the floor of the ocean to rest, and the male departs on to find another mate and repeat the series of events and the female will find a new mate in 3-4 days, making this species polygynandrous. [Source: Carlie Perry, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Red Lionfish Food and Feeding Behavior

Red lionfish feed mostly on crustaceans but also ear other invertebrates like amphipods and isopods and small fishes, which include juveniles of their own species. According to the USGS the lionfish consumes an average of 8.2 times their body weight per year. As juveniles they consume 5.5-13.5 grams per day and 14.6 grams a day as adults. When hunting this lionfish glides along the substrate of rocks, coral or sand and vibrates the rays on its fins to flush out prey from their of hiding places. [Source: Mahya Wood, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

According to Animal Diversity Web: Sunset is an optimal time for Red lionfish to begin feeding because this is when activity in the coral reef is highest. At sunset, all of the day fish and invertebrates make their way to a resting spot for the night and all of the night fish come out to begin feeding. With all of these creatures around, the lionfish need not invest much energy to find a meal. They simply glide upwards along the rock and coral sneaking up on unexpecting prey from below. While moving slowly towards a small fish, Red lionfish uses its open pectoral rays to shield the motion of its caudal fin. This shielding along with the cryptic coloration of the predator prevents the prey from becoming alarmed. Although we find the striped colorful pattern of the lionfish obvious and easy to see in an aquarium setting, in the coral reef this colorful pattern allows the fish to blend into the background of coral branches, feather-stars, and spiny sea urchins. [Source: Mahya Wood, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Red lionfish has also been known to hunt for fish in the open water near the surface with a different technique. Here they wait 20-30 centimeters below the surface and watch for small schools of fish leaping out of the water in an attempt to escape another predator. When they plunge back into the water the lionfish is waiting just below them ready to attack (Fishelson, 1975) /=\

Spot-Fin Firefish

Spot-fin lionfish (Pterois antennata) in the Reunion Islands

The Spot-fin lion (Scientific name:Pterois antennata) is also known as the ragged-finned firefish and ragged fin lionfish They are native to the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean and found from east Africa in the west to the Marquesan and Mangaréva islands in the east and from northern Japan in the north to Queensland, Australia, and waters surrounding the Kermadec and Austral islands in the south. [Source: Padgette' Steer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Spot-fin lionfish tend to inhabit near and offshore coral and rocky reefs at depths of one to 50 meters (3.28 to 164 feet) and displays an obvious preference for sheltering under ledges or in caves and crevices by day, coming out to hunt over the reef at night.

Spot-fin lionfish range in length from 30 to 38.1 centimeters (11.81 to 15.inches) and have typical morphology of members of the Pterois genus. Both sexes are roughly equal in size and look similar. Coloration varies between individuals, but is typically reddish to tan with many dark vertical stripes on the body, with the interradial membranes of the pectorial fins containing multiple scattered, dark-colored spots. Adults also have bluish black blotches near the bases of their pectoral fins. There is no difference in color pattern between sexes. Juveniles have structures called supraorbital tentacles located above their eyes (which may persist into adulthood) that show differences in shape and color between Pterois species. In spot-fin lionfish, these tentacles are black, with brown bars. /=\

Spot-fin lionfish are nocturnal. Once daylight occurs, individuals retreat within the shelter of coral and rocks. In these areas the species exhibits a nearly motionless posture, with the head tilted slightly downward, with the venomous dorsal spines pointing towards the entrance of the crevice. This species congregates in small schools as juveniles and while mating. However, they are solitary for the majority of their adult life. Spot-fin lionfish do not stray far from the areas closely surrounding the coral, rock outcroppings and caves they use as shelters. Home range may be several square meters in area. They will fiercely defend these areas against conspecifics and congeners using their venomous dorsal spines. Male lionfish are more aggressive than females.

Although spot-fin lionfish is eaten in some parts of its native range it is vauled more in aquarium fish trade. This species also plays a role in tourism, as recreational divers seek them out. Spot-fin lionfish are not currently listed as threatened or endangered.

Spot-Fin Firefish Feeding and Predators

Spot-fin lionfish (Pterois antennata)

According to Animal Diversity Web: Spot-fin lionfish are important predators in many coral reef environments, feeding mostly on crustaceans, as well as other invertebrates, and small fishes, including juveniles of their own species. They are known to feed on juveniles of many commercially fished species, like Lutjanus campechanus (red snapper), Plectropomus leopardus (coral trout), and Stenopus hispidus (banded coral shrimp).[Source: Padgette' Steer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Spot-fin lionfish are skilled hunters, using specialized bilateral swim bladder muscles to provide precise control of their position in the water column, allowing a fish to adjust its center of gravity to better attack its prey. When they stalk their prey, they raise their pectoral fins in a shielding fashion. This display, along with the body coloration of this species, decreases the visibility of the firefish to potential prey, blending its body outline into the irregular background patterns of coral branches, feather stars, and sea urchin spines. The firefish attacks with one swift gulping motion, sucking the prey into its mouth.

Anti-predator adaptations of spot-fin lionfish include aposematic coloration, motionless/still behavior during daylight hours, and venomous glandular tissue that produces painful toxins sheathing the dorsal, pelvic, and anal spines. Their main known predators are blue cornetfish, (Fistularia commersonii), Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezii), white-tip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) and black-tip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus)

Hawaiian Turkeyfish

Hawaiian lionfish (Scientific name: Pterois sphex) are also known as Hawaiian lionfish. Lionfish. They can only be found in the northwest and eastern central parts of the Pacific waters immediately surrounding the Hawaiian Islands.[Source: Carlie Perry, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Hawaiian turkeyfish are typically found at depths of three to 124 meters (10 to 487 feet). They inhabit coral reefs and coastal areas and are commonly found in caves and beneath ledges during the day, becoming more active in the reef at night. Their average lifespan in the wild is believed to be around two years. /=\

Hawaiian turkeyfish are one of the smaller Pterois species, ranging in length from four to 11 centimeters (1.6 to 4.4 inches). Both sexes are roughly equal in size and look similar. The species has many of the typical features of other lionfish, including venomous glands located in the dorsal, anal and pelvic fins, villiform teeth, and boney plates protruding beneath the eyes. According to Animal Diversity Web: Hawaiian turkeyfish are a rusty pink and white color with jagged bright white and brown stripes running vertically along their bodies. The nonvenomous pectoral fins of Hawaiian turkeyfish are membrane-bound proximally but become branched distally. Their dorsal spines can be as long as their body's length and are unbound by a membrane, allowing them to sway with the current. They have 50 to 55 ctenoid vertical rows of scales. As Hawaiian turkeyfish mature, more striping appears on the pectoral and pelvic fins, their once few coronal spines multiply, and their black banded supraocular tentacles often disappear. In terms of patterns and weight, sexes are alike.

Hawaiian turkeyfish (Pterois sphex)

Although there have been reports of activity during the day, Hawaiian turkeyfish are almost exclusively active at night. These fish usually live in solitary and can be found sedentary in caves and beneath ledges, sometimes upside down. Upon being approached by either other marine animals or divers, Hawaiian turkeyfish have almost no reaction and remain still and seemingly unbothered. At dusk, Hawaiian turkeyfish become more active, and are especially active at dawn and dusk Prior to feeding, they often move their dorsal fins in such a way that a sine ripple can be seen moving distally from the base of the fin towards the end. To find prey, these fish scan the ocean floor fanning their wing-like fins to reveal marine animals. Once they have disturbed their sleeping victim, they consume the fish or crustacean in a single gulp. In defense against predation and in social hierarchy establishment, Hawaiian turkeyfish use dorsal fin erection to fully display their venomous spines and increase their size for intimidation. This also ensures that any predator will be stung and injured severely if the fish is swallowed. /=\

Invasive Lionfish

Lionfish are a native of the Indo-Pacific region and Red Sea. In 1985 they began appearing off Florida’s Atlantic Coast. They quickly spread, appearing in the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission said. Many think they were introduced by aquarium hobbyists. With no known predators the poisonous fish have spread as far north as the Carolinas and as far east as Bermuda. There are worries the fish might disrupt commercial catches.

Lionfish are now well established along the southeast coast of the U.S., the Caribbean, and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico. 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.

Two of the 12 currently recognized Pterois species red lionfish (Pterois volitans) and common lionfish or devil firefish (Pterois miles) have established themselves as significant invasive species. It is not known for sure how they were first introduced. Red lionfish are popular aquarium fish. Some say they were released into the Atlantic in the 1980s — most likely by Florida aquarium owners. Other says they were introduced to the Atlantic Ocean via Key Biscayne, Florida when a beachside aquarium broke during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.. Yet other say a big resort hotel in the Caribbean mishandled the filtration setup on its giant destination aquarium and pumped them out into the sea. Perhaps, they arrived in the Atlantic Ocean in ballast of big cargo ships originating in the Pacific.

Harm Caused by Invasive Lionfish

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission says.“lionfish "compete for food with native predatory fish such as grouper and snapper and may negatively impact the overall reef habitat by eliminating organisms that serve important ecological roles such as herbivorous fish that keep alga in-check.” [Source: Mark Price, Miami Herald, May 25, 2023]

Lionfish reproduce all year long. A mature female lionfish releases roughly two million eggs a year, which are then widely dispersed by ocean currents. The fact that some lionfish reproduce monthly throughout the entire year means that in order to successfully remove the species, monthly control efforts must be undertaken to ensure population control. Research suggests that invasive lionfish are already having substantial negative impacts on Atlantic coral reefs, causing significant reductions in the recruitment of native fishes. Furthermore, these species are aggressive towards humans and should be treated with caution at all times. [Source: Padgette' Steer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Lionfish species found in the aquarium trade in the US

In U.S. waters, lionfish stocks continue to grow and increase in range. How lionfish will affect native fish populations and commercial fishing industries has yet to be determined. What is known is that non-native species can dramatically affect native ecosystems and local fishing economies. Experts are carefully studying these invaders to better understand their role in, and threat to, Atlantic Ocean ecosystems.

Jeff MacGregor wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Scientists fear lionfish will kill off helpful locals such as algae-eating parrotfish, allowing seaweed to overtake coral reefs already stressed by rising water temperatures and bleaching. Lionfish kill off other small cleaner-fish, too, which increases the risk of infection and disease among sport fish and cash fishery populations. [Source:Jeff MacGregor, Smithsonian magazine, June 2018]

Steve Gittings, chief scientist for NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary System, told Smithsonian magazine: . “I think it boils down to two levels of activity that lionfish do. One is eating any small fish that they can eat, but that means those fish are not available for other fish to eat, commercial or otherwise, so that’s a whole ecosystem-trophic effect. It’s a collapse. Could be a collapse....On the other end of the spectrum they’re eating juveniles of the fish that would become commercially available. So, why are people not yet saying, ‘There’s no more grouper. There’s no more snapper’? Well, it might be the juveniles of those species have not reached adulthood — and won’t, because they’re being eaten by lionfish. So if lionfish are eating a lot of juveniles of snapper, grouper, there’s all of a sudden going to be a collapse at the level of species entering the adult phase. That will eventually show up as no more snapper-grouper.”

Some predict a lionfish Atlantic ecosystem apocalypse. Gittings said: “I’m still hopeful that it’ll be a non-apocalypse because I hope nature will figure it out. But, at least, as far as the evidence far, apocalypse. It could be. But, I have to trust in nature, because for a lot of previous invasive species, land or sea, nature eventually figures it out. With disease, with parasites, with predators. So something’s going to get these things. Right now, they’re taking over. They reproduce better than rabbits, eat like crazy, and nothing eats them.”

Lionfish Tournaments and Efforts to Get Rid of Invasive Lionfish

In the Bahamas, divers and fisherman are told to kill any lionfish they encounter. Park officials of the Roatan Marine Park in Honduras have attempted to train sharks to feed on lionfish to control the invasive populations in the Caribbean. In Belize in 2002, a bounty of US$50 was offered for every fish killed. But even with that hefty price on their heads, the lionfish population continued to grow.

The Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida has brought together a team of molecular scientists, marine biologists, benthic ecologists, zoologists, technicians, reef experts and chefs to address the issue. NOAA has developed traps to catch them published plans on how people can make them. Dozens of lionfish rodeos, derbies and hunts have been organized in Florida and elsewhere. Restaurants and grocery stores in Florida have come up with lionfish recipes and are going out of their way to encourage people to eat the fish. Many folks say ot taste good and one store sold 13,000 kilograms of lionfish meat. The Lionfish World Championship, Sponsored by Coast Watch Alliance and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Reef Rangers, and the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition, in 2016 alone brought in more than 8,000 fish — in a weekend.

In May 2023, the world’s largest lionfish event — the annual Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament — announced that divers caught a record 24,699 lionfish off Florida’s Gulf Coast — nearly 11,000 more lionfish than were caught in the 2022 tournament, officials said. The Miami Herald reported: Equally startling is the fact the predatory fish appear to be getting bigger. Average for lionfish is 12 to 15 inches off Florida, but a diver from the team Dibs on Bottom caught a 17.95-inch lionfish in the tournament, officials said. That’s the biggest in the event’s five-year history and just under an inch shy of the state record.[Source: Mark Price, Miami Herald, May 25, 2023]

The 24,699 fish were caught by 144 divers from around the country who descended on the Panhandle in hopes of sharing $100,000 in prize money, officials said. The tournament was held May 19-20. A dive team known as the Deep Water Mafia led the event with a catch of 2,898 lionfish, officials said. Florida is also home to the annual Lionfish Challenge, a three-month summer competition that brought in “a whopping 25,299 lionfish” in 2022, the state says.

Lionfish Hunting in Belize

Describing a lionfish hunting trip in Belize, Sadie Dingfelder wrote in the Washington Post; It’s my third day in Belize, and I’m speeding toward a lionfish stronghold called South Water Caye. I woke up early, set on spearing a lionfish and saving thousands of juvenile reef fish from untimely deaths, but my lionfish-hunting resolve wanes as Gio shows me his scars. “Here’s where the spine went all the way through my hand,” Gio says, pointing to the slack skin between his thumb and forefinger. “I got stung twice here,” he adds, as he shows me a white mark on his knuckle.. “It’s two hours of the worst pain I’ve ever felt,” Gio says. [Source: Sadie Dingfelder, Washington Post October 19, 2012]

“I turn over the stumpy, blunt spear in my hands as Gio gives me further instruction. If you skewer a lionfish through the side, he might swim up the spear and stab your hand. “Try to hit them right between the eyes,” he says. As I step off the dive boat, I consider my list of reasons for backing out of the lionfish hunt: poor vision, bad hand-eye coordination, a dislike of intense pain, an overdeveloped sense of empathy that keeps me from squishing even roaches. However, as a member of the most invasive species of all, I decide that it’s my duty to at least try to spear a lion.

The reef comes into view, and it’s not long before I spot my prey, his hiding place given away by a single feathery fin. Ready, aim, fire! The fish and I are equally surprised when I sink a spear right in the center of his zebra-striped head. My courage tapped, I hand my spear to Gio, who removes the fish and adds it to a string. The day’s kills, about a half-dozen fish, trail behind us like a balloon as we swim toward the boat. We pass a pair of fairy basslets, one of the lionfish’s favorite snacks. “You’re welcome,” I tell them, telepathically.

Back at the dock, Gio cleans my fish, and I take it to the chef at my hotel. “Can you cook this?” I ask. It’s not uncommon for guests to bring their own fish to dinner, the cook says, but my lionfish is a first. That night, other diners are intrigued by my special order. “What does it taste like?” asks a fellow diver. I take a nibble of the flaky, pale flesh and admit that I’ve been a vegetarian since age 6. Since I have no idea what fish is supposed to taste like, I divvy up the fillet and share it with anyone who wants to try. “It’s good,” says a dark-haired woman at the bar. “It’s light, but it has some toothiness to it, like swordfish.”

But despite such efforts, researchers have concluded that invasive lionfish populations will continue to grow and cannot be eliminated using conventional methods. Marine invaders are nearly impossible to eradicate once established. Experts are carefully studying these invaders to better understand their role in, and potential threat to Atlantic Ocean ecosystems. And key reef and commercial fish species. Learning more about the habits and preferences of lionfish in non-native waters also helps experts determine where to look for these invasive fish.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA, group pictures from researchgate, EvoDevo and Oceans, Reefs and Aquariums (ORA)

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated May 2023

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