Pterois volitans/miles
Pterois volitans/miles
(lionfish)
Fishes
Exotic
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Pterois volitans/miles

Common name: lionfish

Identification:  

EN ESPANOL

Family Scorpaenidae (Scorpionfishes)
The head is large, from 1/3 to 1/2 the standard length. Most species have numerous head spines. The dorsal fin has strong, venomous spines (VIII to XVII). The anal fin also has sharp, venomous spines (usually III). The caudal fin is usually rounded or squared, but not forked. This large family contains about 500 species.

Two visually identical species have been introduced into the north-west Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.  Although identification information is given below, this was derived for specimens from the native range.  Lionfishes in the invaded range may differ significantly from native range specimens.  At this time, positive identification can only be achieved via genetic analysis.  Therefore, throughout this document, both species are referred to collectively as "lionfishes".

Pterois volitans Red Lionfish
The Red Lionfish has greatly elongated dorsal-fin spines. The membranes of all fins are often spotted. The body is white or cream coloured red to reddish-brown vertical stripes. The vertical stripes alternate from wide to very thin (with the thin stripes being more numerous) and sometimes merge along the flank to form a V-shape.

Pterois miles Devil Firefish
A closely-related species, the Devil Firefish (Pterois miles), is similar to the Red Lionfish. The Devil Firefish is found primarily in Indian Ocean and Red Sea (as opposed to the Red Lionfish, which is predominantly a Pacific species); however, its range extends to Sumatra where the two species co-occur. Although it appears very similar to the Red Lionfish, the Devil Firefish has fewer dorsal- and anal-fin rays. The Devil Firefish generally has 10 dorsal-fin rays and 6 anal-fin rays; the Red Lionfish usually has 11 dorsal-fin rays and 7 anal-fin rays. See Remarks below. Recent genetic work has revealed that the Atlantic population of Red Lionfish is composed primarily of P. volitans with a small number of P. miles (Hamner et al. 2007).

Also see Poss (1999) and Schultz (1986).

Size: 47 cm

Native Range: Widely distributed throughout the western Pacific from southern Japan to Micronesia, Australia and the Philippines. Pterois volitans occurs throughout most of Oceania (including the Marshall Islands, New Caledonia and Fiji) east to French Polynesia. Pterois miles is from the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, although its range extends to Sumatra.

World Range Map

Interactive Map
Nonindigenous Occurrences:  

Click here for the most up-to-date lionfish distribution (our Real-Time Point Distribution Map)


Schofield (2009) provides an overview of lionfish occurrences in the Atlantic and Caribbean through August 2009.  An update to this article (Schofield 2010) gives the current range of lionfish through November 2010.  In summary:

Atlantic Coast of USA: Lionfishes have been established from Miami to North Carolina since 2002.  They established in the Florida Keys in 2009.  Although present in Atlantic waters north of North Carolina, they are not likely to survive cold winter temperatures.

Gulf of Mexico: Other than the anomalous Treasure Island specimen (see Schofield 2010), the first confirmed specimens of lionfish taken from the Gulf of Mexico were in December 2009.  Sightings of lionfishes are becoming common in the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially associated with artifical reefs (including oil/gas platforms).

Bermuda, Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and Cayman Islands: Lionfishes were numerous in Bermuda by 2004 and established in the Bahamas by 2005, the Turks and Caicos by 2008 and the Cayman Islands by 2009.

Greater Antilles: Lionfishes are established off all islands in the Greater Antilles (Cuba [2007], Jamaica [2008], Hispañola [Haiti and the Dominican Republic; 2008] and Puerto Rico [2009]).

Lesser Antilles: Lionfish presence has been confirmed throughout the leeward and windward islands.  For more details, see Schofield (2010).

Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Central and South America: Lionfishes are established from Mexico through Venezuela (Mexico [2009], Belize [2009], Honduras [2009], Nicaragua [2010], Costa Rica [2009], Panamá [2009], Colombia [2010], Venezuela [2010]).  One specimen was captured in southern Brazil in 2014 (Ferreira et al. 2015).  It is unclear whether the species is established in Brazil at this time (2016).

Mediterannean Sea: Pterois miles has been reported from the Mediterranean Sea in Israel (Golani and Sonin 1992), Lebanon (Bariche et al. 2013) and Turkey (Turan et al. 2014).  The species is reported from popular press articles in Cyprus (Evripidou 2013). Kletou et al. (2016) reported that lionfish had recently increased in abundance and colonised almost the entire south eastern coast of Cyprus. These fish are thought to have migrated into the Mediterranean sea via the Suez Canal (i.e., Lessepsian migration).

Additional maps and flyers:

Animated Distribution Map

Report a Lionfish Sighting and Medical Treatment Information (Printable PDF Flyer)

Ecology: Lionfishes inhabit natural (e.g., reef) and artifical structure (e.g., wrecks) at depths from just a few inches of water to over 300 m.  In the invaded range, lionfishes have been found in a variety of habitats, including reefs, wrecks, bridge pilings, seagrass and natural hardbottom.  Most scorpionfishes are colored to camouflage them against their background.  However, the lionfish is a notable exception with its greatly extended fin spines and striking coloration.  In the native range juveniles live in small groups, but as adults they typically occur alone (Fishelson 1997).  Individuals are relatively inactive during the day, typically sheltering in reef crevices.  The prey of lionfishes includes small fishes and crustaceans (Fishelson 1975; Harmelin-Vivien and Bouchon 1976).  An increase in piscivory occurs with age (Harmelin-Vivien and Bouchon 1976).

In the U.S., lionfishes have rapidly increased in abundance and are now as abundant as many native grouper species in the Atlantic Ocean (Whitfield et al. 2007).  Surprisingly, although it was thought the species' northward expansion along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. would be limited by cool water temperatures, lionfish have been observed in water as cold as 56 F off the southern coast of Long Island (T. Gardner, pers. comm.).

There is a tremendous amount of research on lionfishes in the invaded range, which has generated many scientific papers.  For a quick summary of the basics, see REEF's "Lionfish Quick Facts" here:  www.reef.org/lionfish/quickfacts

For a comprehensive summary of lionfish biology and ecology in the Atlantic and Caribbean, see:

Morris, J. A. and P. Whitfield.  2009.  Biology, Ecology, Control and Management of the Invasive Indo-Pacific Lionfish: An Updated Integrated Assessment.  NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 99. 57 pp.  available online: http//:coastalscience.noaa.gov/documents/lionfish_ ia2009.pdf

The latest lionfish research, including the topics below, can be found on NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science lionfish webpage: http://www.ccfhr.noaa.gov/stressors/lionfish.aspx

  • Biology and ecology
  • Ecological impacts
  • Control and management
  • Population monitoring
  • Outreach and education

To see the latest updates and information from Dr. Mark Hixon's lab at Oregon State University, go here: http://hixon.science.oregonstate.edu/content/highlight-lionfish-invasion

The new manual Invasive Lionfish: A Guide to Control and Management includes the best available science and practices for controlling lionfish.

Means of Introduction: The most probable explanation for the arrival of lionfishes in the Atlantic Ocean is via the aquarium trade (Whitfield et al. 2002; Semmens et al. 2004).  No one will ever know with certainty how lionfishes gained entry to the coastal waters of the U.S.; however, as they are common aquarium fishes, it is possible they were released pets.  The well-publicized report of lionfish establishment due to a breakage of a large aquarium by Hurricane Andrew is probably erroneous.

Status: Lionfishes are established along the Atlantic coast of the USA (from the Florida Keys to Cape Hatteras), the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America, the Gulf of Mexico, and throughout the Greater Antilles, Leeward and Windward Islands.  See Schofield 2010 for details.

Impact of Introduction: Research by Albins and Hixon (2008) on small patch reefs in the Bahamas provided the first evidence of negative effects of lionfish on native Atlantic coral-reef fishes.  The recruitment of coral-reef fishes was studied during the 2007 recruitment period (July-August) on small patch reefs in the Bahamas with and without lionfish.  Over the five week period, net recruitment (i.e., accumulation of new juvenile fishes via settlement of larvae) was reduced by 79% on reefs with a single lionfish compared to reefs with no lionfish.  Stomach content analyses and observations of feeding behavior showed that reductions in native fish density were almost certainly due to predation by lionfish.  Prey items found in lionfish stomachs included the fairy basslet Gramma loreto, bridled cardinalfish Apogon aurolineatus, white grunt Haemulon plumierii, bicolor damselfish Stegastes pertitus, several wrasses Halichoeres bivittatus, H. garnoti and Thalasoma bifasciatum, striped parrotfish Scarus iserti, and dusky blenny Malacoctenus gilli.  Initial examination of crustacean prey suggests that lionfish may also eat the juvenile spiny lobster Panulirus argus.  The reduction in recruitment of coral-reef fishes suggests that lionfish may also compete with native piscivores by monopolizing this important food resource.  In addition, lionfish have the potential to decrease the abundance of ecologically important species such as parrotfish and other herbivorous fishes that keep seaweeds and macroalgae from overgrowing corals.

Additional research in the Bahamas has documented a marked impact on native fish communities.  Green et al. (2012) documented an increase in lionfish populations that corresponded with a 65% decline in the biomass of lionfish prey (42 fish species) over a two-year time period. 

Albins (2012) manipulated densities of lionfish and a native predator (coney grouper, Cephalopholis fulva) on small patch reefs in the Bahamas over an 8-week time period.  Native fishes on patch reefs with lionfish were reduced at a rate 2.5 times greater than patch reefs with the grouper.  Concomitant reductions in species richness on lionfish reefs were seen, whereas reefs with grouper did not experience reductions in species richness.  Greatest effects on the native community were seen when both lionfish and grouper were present on reefs, a situation that is likely occurring across much of the Caribbean at this time.  In summary, this study showed that lionfish have a stronger ecological effect on native prey fishes than equivalent native predators, and may pose a substantial threat to native coral-reef fish communities.

Long-term effects of lionfish are unknown; however, Albins and Hixon (2012) suggest that direct and indirect effects of lionfish could combine with the impacts of preexisting stressors (especially overfishing) and cause substantial deleterious changes in coral-reef communities.

Remarks: The Devil Firefish (Pterois miles) is closely related to the Red Lionfish (P. volitans). In fact, P. miles and P. volitans have been treated as the same species (i.e., as synonyms) as well as distinct species (Schultz 1986). The Devil Firefish is found primarily in Indian Ocean and Red Sea, but has also migrated through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea (Golani and Sonin 1992). The two species co-occur in western Indonesia. Although it appears very similar to the Red Lionfish, the Devil Firefish has fewer dorsal- and anal-fin rays (see Identification, above). Genetic work (using mitochondrial DNA) was unable to reveal whether P. miles and P. volitans are distinct species or two populations of a single species (Kochzius et al. 2003).  Hamner et al. (2007) show that about 93% of the Atlantic population of lionfish consists of P. volitans, while only 7% is P. miles.

The dorsal- and anal-fin spines of the lionfish contain a potent venom that can administer a painful sting (Steinitz 1959). Regardless, the species is consumed in subsistence fisheries of the Pacific and is a popular aquarium fish despite its venomous spines. The dangerous nature of the spines may contribute to the fact that lionfish have few natural enemies. Larger lionfish are known to consume smaller members of their species (Fishelson 1997). Other than cannibalism, there are few documented natural predators of the lionfish. Bernadsky and Goulet (1991) presented evidence that coronetfish (Fistularia commersonii) consumes P. miles.  Additionally, a few lionfish have been found in the stomachs of native groupers in the Bahamas (Maljkoviæ et al. 2008).

References: (click for full references)

Aguilar-Perera, A. and A. Tuz-Sulub. 2010. Non-native, invasive Red lionfish (Pterois volitans [Linnaeus, 1758]:Scorpaenidae), is first recorded in the southern Gulf of Mexico, off the northern Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Aquatic Invasions 5(2):S9-S12.

Albins, M. A.  2012.  Effects of invasive Pacific red lionfish Pterois volitans versus a native predator on Bahamian coral-reef fish communities.  Biological Invasions (Online First: http://www.springerlink.com/content/qrw171w1204h3l10/fulltext.pdf)

Albins, M. A. and M. A. Hixon.  2008.  Invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans) reduce recruitment of Atlantic coral-reef fishes.  Marine Ecology Progress Series 367: 233-238. 

Albins, M. A. and M. A. Hixon. 2012.  Worst case scenario: potential long-term effects of invasive predatory lionfish (Pterois volitans) on Atlantic and Caribbean coral-reef communities.  Environmental Biology of Fishes (available via Online First: http://www.springerlink.com/content/7v254603n7883768/ )

Bariche, M., M. Torres and E. Azzurro.  2013.  The presence of the invasive Lionfish Pterois miles in the Mediterranean Sea.  Mediterranean Marine Science 14: 292-294.

Bernadsky, G. and D. Goulet.  1991.  A natural predator of the lionfish, Pterois miles.  Copeia 1991: 230-231.

Chevalier, P.P., E. Gutiérrez, D. Ibarzabal, S. Romero, V. Isla, J. Calderín and E. Hernández.  2008.  Primer registro de Pterois volitans (Pisces: Scorpaenidae) para aguas cubanas.  Solenodon 7: 37-40.

Courtenay, W.R., Jr.  1995.  Marine fish introductions in southeastern Florida.  Newsletter of the Introduced Fish Section, American Fisheries Society 14: 2-3.

Evripidou, S.  2013.  Toxic lionfish makes its way to Cyprus waters.  http://archives.cyprus-mail.com/2013/02/20/toxic-lionfish-makes-its-way-to-cyprus-waters/
accessible here: http://www.incyprus.eu/cyprus-news/toxic-lionfish-makes-its-way-to-cyprus-waters/

Ferreira, C. E. L., O. J. Luiz, S. R. Floeter, M. B. Lucena, M. C. Barbosa, C. R. Rocha and L. A. Rocha. 2015. First record of invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans) for the Brazilian coast. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0123002.  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0123002.

Fishelson, L.  1975.  Ethology and reproduction of pteroid fishes found in the Gulf of Aqaba (Red Sea), especially Dendrochirus brachypterus (Cuvier), (Pteroidae, Teleostei).  Pubblicazioni della Stazione zoologica di Napoli 39: 635-656.

Fishelson, L.  1997.  Experiments and observations on food consumption, growth and starvation in Dendrochirus brachypterus and Pterois volitans (Pteroinae, Scorpaenidae).  Environmental Biology of Fishes 50: 391-403.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission - Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI).  2006.  First-known lionfish caught in Florida's Gulf Coast waters. [A Fish and Wildlife Research Institute press release.] http://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/nonnative/marine-life/gulf-coast-lionfish-caught/

González J., M. Grijalba-Bendeck, A. Acero P, R. Betancur-R. 2009. The invasive red lionfish, Pterois volitans, in the southwestern Caribbean Sea. Aquatic Invasions 3: 507-510.

Green S. J. and I. M. Côté.  2008.  Record densities of Indo-Pacific lionfish on Bahamian coral reefs.  Coral Reefs: published online 25 November 2008.

Green, S. J., J. L. Akins, A. Maljkovic, I. M. Côté.  2012.  Invasive lionfish drive Atlantic coral reef fish declines.  PLoS One 7:e32596.

Guerrero, K. A. and A. Luis Franco.  2008.  First Record for the Indo-Pacific red lionfish Pterois volitans (Linnaeus, 1758) for the Dominican Republic.  Aquatic Invasions 3: 255-256

Golani, D. and O. Sonin.  1992.  New records of the Red Sea fishes Pterois miles (Scorpaenidae) and Pteragogus pelycus (Labridae) from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.  Japanese Journal of Ichthyology 39: 167-169.

Hamner, R. M., D. W. Freshwater and P. E. Whitfield.  2007.  Mitochondiral cytochrome b analysis reveals two invasive species with strong founder effects in the western Atlantic.  Journal of Fish Biology 71 (Sup B): 214-222.

Harmelin-Vivien, M. L. and C. Bouchon.  1976.  Feeding behavior of some carnivorous fishes (Serranidae and Scorpaenidae) from Tuléar (Madagascar).  Marine Biology 37: 329-340.

Kimball, M. E., J. M. Miller, P. E. Whitfield and J. A. Hare.  2004.  Thermal tolerance and potential distribution of invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles complex) on the east coast of the United States.  Marine Ecology Progress Series 283: 269-278.

Kletou, D., J. M. Hall-Spencer and P. Kleitou.  2016.  A lionfish (Pterois miles) has begun in the Mediterranean Sea.  Marine Biodiversity Records 9:46 DOI: 10.1186/s41200-016-0065-y.

Kochzius, M., R. Söller, M. A. Khalaf and D. Blohm.  2003.  Molecular phylogeny of the lionfish genera Dendrochirus and Pterois (Scorpaenidae, Pteroinae) based on mictochondrial DNA sequences.  Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 28: 396-403.

Lasso-Alcalá, O.M., Posada, J.M. 2010. Presence of the invasive red lionfish, Pterois volitans (Linnaeus, 1758), on the coast of Venezuela, southeastern Caribbean Sea. Aquatic Invasions 5: S53-59.

Maljkoviæ, A., T. E. Van Leeuwen and S. N. Cove.  2008.  Predation on the invasive red lionfish, Pterois volitans (Pisces: Scorpaenidae), by native groupers in the Bahamas.  Coral Reefs 27: 501.

Meister, H. S., D. M. Wyanski, J. K. Loefer, S. W. Ross, A. M. Quatrini and K. J. Sulak.  2005.  Further evidence for the invasion and establishment of Pterois volitans (Teleostei: Scorpaenidae) elong the Atlantic Coast of the United States. Southeastern Naturalist 4: 193-206.

Morris, J. A. and P. Whitfield.  2009.  Biology, Ecology, Control and Management of the Invasive Indo-Pacific Lionfish: An Updated Integrated Assessment.  NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 99. 57 pp.  available online at http://coastalscience.noaa.gov/documents/lionfish_%20ia2009.pdf

Poss, S. G.  1999.  Scorpaenidae.  Scorpionfishes.  Pages 2291-2352 In: Carpenter, K. E. and V. Niem (Eds.)  FAO species identification guide for fishery purposes.  The living marine resources of the Western Central Pacific.  Vo. 4.  Bony fishes part 2 (Mugilidae to Carangidae).  FAO, Rome.

Pura Vida Divers.  2003.  Lionfish sighting in West Palm Beach.  Pura Vida Divers.

Reef  Environmental Education Foundation (REEF).  2008.  Exotic species sighting program and volunteer survey project database.  Accessed March 10, 2008.

Ruiz-Carus, R., R. E. Matheson, Jr., D. E. Roberts, Jr., and P. E. Whitfield.  2006.  The western Pacific red lionfish, Pterois volitans (Scorpaenidae), in Florida: Evidence for reproduction and parasitism in the first exotic marine fish established in state waters.  Biological Conservation 128: 348-390.

Schofield, P. J.  2009. Geographic extent and chronology of the invasion of non-native lionfish (Pterois volitans [Linnaeus 1758] and P. miles [Bennett 1828]) in the Western North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea.  Aquatic Invasions 4(3):473-479. http://www.aquaticinvasions.ru/2009/AI_2009_4_3_Schofield.pdf

Schofield, P. J.  2010.  Update of geographic spread of lionfishes (Pterois volitans [Linnaeus, 1758] and P. miles [Bennett, 1828]) in the Western North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.  Aquatic Invasions 5 (Supplement 1): S117-122.  http://www.aquaticinvasions.net/2010/Supplement/AI_2010_5_S1_Schofield.pdf

Schultz, Eric T.  1986.  Pterois volitans and Pterois miles: two valid species.  Copeia 1986: 686-690.

Semmens, B. X., E. R. Buhle, A. K. Salomon, C. V. Pattengill-Semmens.  2004.  A hotspot of non-native marine fishes:  evidence for the aquarium trade as an invasion pathway.  Marine Ecology Progress Series 266: 239-244.

Sherman, B. 2007. Invasive lionfish species confirmed in Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA Press Release October 12, 2007. http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/news/press/2007/pr101207.html

Steinitz, H.  1959.  Observations on Pterois volitans (L.) and its venom.  Copeia 1959: 158-160.

Turan, C., D. Erguden, M. Gurlek, D. Yaghoglu, A. Uyan and N. Uygur.  2014.  First record of the Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois miles (Bennett, 1828) (Osteichthyes: Scorpaenidae) for the Turkish marine waters.  Journal of the Black Sea/Mediterranean Environment 20: 158-163.

Whitfield, P. E., T. Gardner, S. P. Vives, M. R. Gilligan, W. R. Courtenay, Jr., G. C. Ray and J. A. Hare.  2002.  Biological invasion of the Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans) along the Atlantic coast of North America.  Marine Ecology Progress Series 235: 289-297.

Whitfield, P. E., J. A. Hare, A. W. David, S. L. Harter, R. C. Munoz and C. M. Addison.  2007.  Abundance estimates of the Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois volitans/miles complex in the Western North Atlantic.  Biological Invasions 9: 53-64.


Author: Schofield, P.J., J.A. Morris, Jr, J.N. Langston, and P.L. Fuller

Revision Date: 9/18/2012

Citation Information:
Schofield, P.J., J.A. Morris, Jr, J.N. Langston, and P.L. Fuller. 2016. Pterois volitans/miles. USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL.
http://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/FactSheet.aspx?speciesID=963 Revision Date: 9/18/2012


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Citation information: U.S. Geological Survey. [2016]. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. Accessed [8/24/2016].

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