Its other names range from the cool ”fire fish” and “fan dancer” to the decidedly rubbish “turkeyfish”, but the PR’s still bad for almost all of them. Why? Because for some species of lionfish, the Atlantic Ocean is the king of the feasts.
Somehow the offspring of a barber pole, a hedgehog and an exfoliating bath sponge looks graceful, but don’t be tempted to stroke those soft-looking spines, or you could be rewarded with severe pain, swelling, partial paralysis, and if you’re really unlucky, tissue death (necrosis). Yes, it’s a venomous tyke, and being sensible enough to avoid it is part of the reason it’s spread so quickly in the Atlantic and even as far as the Mediterranean. I say part of the reason, because some of it is good old fashioned human intervention.
Tanks a lot, people
There are 13 species known as “lionfish” on the IUCN’s Red List, most from the genus Pterois, others from Dendrochirus, and almost all of them are bought and sold in the aquarium trade. This has been touted as a solution to the Atlantic invasion of red lionfish (Pterois volitans), but to make any sort of dent in the population, we probably would need to use them as an exfoliating bath sponge, an option equally appealing to both sides. What’s more, you could argue, capturing them is how the invasion happened in the first place.
A combination of secret releases by pet owners in the 1980s, and escaped pet-shop fishes in the aftermath of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, saw them mixing in different home waters. Normally found in the Indo-Pacific, the lionfish found a new playground with hardly any predators and plenty of food for their voracious appetites. So who wouldn’t have a party and breed until the cows come home? It’s not only bad news for the 50-or so fish species they chomp on: one particularly prolific breeder, spawning every 4 days, all year round, also happens to be lethal.
The awesomely-named devil firefish (Pterois miles) has made its way to Europe too, and is enjoying a sneaky snoop around southeastern Cyprus. It’s thought it found its way into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal and decided to hang around due to the warming seas. Almost as impressive as its name is how it and its relatives manage to stalk fish and crustacean prey with such an ostentatious display of spines.
So with few or no predators, and a high breeding rate, the lionfish has been munching its way through many a reef ecosystem with devastating results. Fortunately, another ecosystem (of sorts) can be used to fight back. Namely, human intervention again.
How about a lionfish jerk? No not you, the spicy type
Some Atlantic seafood restaurants serve this venomous customer on a platter, but don’t worry, it won’t be a repeat of that old Simpsons episode, because cooking neutralises the toxins. It’s the poor chef who has to remove the spines!
By all accounts though, it’s a very tasty fish, with a white and buttery meat. So in this case, revenge is a dish best served hot, ideally with chillies, cloves, cinnamon and coconut rice. Well, not really revenge, more like atonement, which probably should be served as soon as possible.
Latin: Pterois / Dendrochirus are the genus names for fish known as “lionfish”
What? Reef-loving, dazzling-looking fish with stripes and venomous spines
Where? Originally from the Indian and Pacific Ocean, some species have stealthed their way into the Atlantic and even the Mediterranean!
How big? Depending on the species, up to 38cm / 15 inches long
Endangered? Nope – all currently Least Concern, if not considered an invasive species!
Probable motto: Tsk, you only hate me because I can eat as much as I want and still look fabulous.
They look awesome. Do they need my help at all?
Nope, surprisingly for a fish covered in venomous spines, they’re doing all right for themselves – probably a bit too well in some cases, actually! However, they live in reefs, which are definitely in need of help:
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Bray, D.J. No date. “Dendrochirus zebra“ in Fishes of Australia, accessed 28 Jan 2019.
Bray, D.J. 2017, “Pterois lunulata“ in Fishes of Australia, accessed 28 Jan 2019.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Lionfish“. Britannica.com
Global Invasive Species Database. 2019. “Species profile: “Pterois volitans””.
Johnston, Ian. 2016. “Beautiful, deadly lionfish invade Mediterranean as seas get warmer“. The Independent.
“Pterois lunulata“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Pterois miles“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Pterois volitans“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Southern Kitchen. 2018. “Florida chefs turn lionfish from foe to dinner favourite“.
Spencer, Erin. 2013. “Top 5 myths about lionfish“. National Geographic Blog.
Featured image credit: “Red lionfish” by cinoby