Pterois, commonly known as lionfish, is a genus of venomous marine fish found mostly in the Indo-Pacific. Pterois is characterized by red, white and black bands, showy pectoral fins and venomous spiky fin rays. Pterois are classified into nine different species, but Pterois radiata, Pterois volitans and Pterois miles are the most commonly studied. Pterois are popular aquarium fish and are readily utilized in the culinary world.
There are currently 10 recognized species in this genus:
- Pterois andover G. R. Allen & Erdmann, 2008
- Pterois antennata (Bloch, 1787) (Spotfin lionfish)
- Pterois brevipectoralis (Mandritsa, 2002)
- Pterois lunulata Temminck & Schlegel, 1843 (Luna lionfish)
- Pterois miles (J. W. Bennett, 1828) (Devil firefish)
- Pterois mombasae (J. L. B. Smith, 1957) (Frillfin turkeyfish)
- Pterois radiata G. Cuvier, 1829 (Clearfin lionfish)
- Pterois russelii E. T. Bennett, 1831 (Soldier lionfish, red volitans lionfish)
- Pterois sphex D. S. Jordan & Evermann, 1903 (Hawaiian turkeyfish)
- Pterois volitans (Linnaeus, 1758) (Red lionfish, volitans lionfish)
Pterois range in size from 6.2 to 42.4 cm with typical adults measuring 38 cm and weighing an average of 480 g. They are well known for their ornate beauty, venomous spines and unique tentacles. Juvenile lionfish have a unique tentacle located above their eye sockets that varies in phenotype between species. It is suggested that the evolution of this tentacle serves to continually attract new prey; studies also suggest that it plays a role in sexual selection.
Ecology and behavior
Pterois can live from five to fifteen years and have complex courtship and mating behaviors. Females release two mucus-filled egg clusters frequently, which can contain as many as fifteen thousand eggs. Studies on Pterois reproductive habits have increased significantly in the past decade.
According to a study that involved the dissection of over 1,400 lionfish stomachs from Bahamian to North Carolinian waters, Pterois prey mostly on small fish, invertebrates and mollusks in large amounts, with some specimens’ stomachs containing up to six different species of prey. The amount of prey in lionfish stomachs over the course of the day suggest that lionfish feed most actively from 7:00–11:00 am, with decreased feeding throughout the afternoon. Lionfish are skilled hunters, using specialized bilateral swim bladder muscles to provide exquisite control of location in the water column, allowing the fish to alter its center of gravity to better attack prey. The lionfish then spreads its large pectoral fins and swallows its prey in a single motion. Researchers have also noted that lionfish blow jets of water while approaching prey, apparently in order to disorient them.
Predators and parasites
Aside from instances of larger lionfish individuals engaging in cannibalism on smaller individuals, adult lionfish have few identified natural predators. This is likely due to the effectiveness of their venomous spines. Moray eels (family Muraenidae), bluespotted cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii) and large groupers, like the tiger grouper (Mycteroperca tigris) and Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus), have been observed preying on lionfish. It remains unknown, however, as to how commonly these predators prey on lionfish. Sharks are also believed to be capable of preying on lionfish with no ill-effects from its spines. Park officials of the Roatan Marine Park in Honduras have attempted to train sharks to feed on lionfish as of 2011 in an attempt to control the invasive populations in the Caribbean. Predators of larvae and juvenile lionfish remain unknown, but may prove to be the primary limiting factor of lionfish populations in their native range.
Hazard to humans
Lionfish are known for their venomous fin rays, a feature that is uncommon among marine fish in the East Coast coral reefs. The potency of their venom makes them excellent predators and poisonous to fishermen and divers. Pterois venom produced negative inotropic and chronotropic effects when tested in both frog and clam hearts and has a depressing effect on rabbit blood pressure. These results are thought to be due to nitric oxide release. In humans, Pterois venom can cause systemic effects such as extreme pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, breathing difficulties, convulsions, dizziness, redness on the affected area, headache, numbness, paresthesia (pins and needles) and sweating. Rarely, such stings can cause temporary paralysis of the limbs, heart failure and even death. Fatalities are common in very young children, the elderly, those with a weak immune system or those who are allergic to their venom. However, their venom is rarely fatal to healthy humans. But some species have enough venom to produce extreme discomfort for over a period of several days. However, Pterois venom can provide a danger to allergic victims because some victims may experience anaphylaxis which is a serious and often life threatening that requires immediate emergency medical treatment. Severe allergic reactions to Pterois venom are usually chest pain, severe breathing difficulties, a drop in blood pressure, swelling of the tongue, sweating, runny nose, or slurred speech. Such reactions can be fatal if not treated.
Native range and habitat
The lionfish is a predator native to the Indo-Pacific. It aggressively preys on small fish and invertebrates. They can be found around the seaward edge of reefs and coral, in lagoons, and on rocky surfaces to fifty meters. They show a preference for turbid inshore areas and in harbors. Lionfish have a generally hostile attitude and are territorial towards other reef fish. Many universities in the Indo-Pacific have documented reports of Pterois aggression towards divers and researchers.
Invasive introduction and range
Two of the nine species of Pterois, the red lionfish (P. volitans) and the common lionfish (P. miles), have established themselves as significant invasive species off the East Coast of the United States and in the Caribbean. About 93% of the invasive population is P. volitans.
The red lionfish is found off the East Coast of the United States and the Caribbean Sea, and was likely first introduced off the Florida coast in the early to mid-1990s. It has been speculated that this introduction may have been caused when Hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium in southern Florida, It is also believed that six lionfish were accidentally released in Biscayne Bay, Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. However, a more recent report states National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ecologist James Morris Jr. has discovered that a lionfish was discovered off the coast of south Florida prior to Hurricane Andrew in 1985. It is also believed that the lionfish were purposefully discarded by unsatisfied aquarium enthusiasts. The first documented capture of lionfish in the Atlantic occurred in Dania Beach, Florida. In 2001, NOAA documented multiple sightings of lionfish off the coast of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Bermuda, and were first detected in the Bahamas in 2004. Recently (late November 2011) they have been discovered as far east as Barbados, and as far south as Los Roques Archipelago and many Venezuelan continental beaches.
Pterois volitans and Pterois miles are native to sub-tropical and tropical regions from southern Japan and southern Korea to the east coast of Australia, Indonesia, Micronesia, French Polynesia and in the South Pacific Ocean. Adult lionfish specimens are now found along the United States East Coast from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Florida, and in Bermuda, the Bahamas, and throughout the Caribbean, including the Turks and Caicos, Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Cayman Islands, Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Belize, Honduras and Mexico. Population densities continue to increase in the invaded areas, resulting in a population boom of up to 700% in some areas between 2004 and 2008. Population densities have reached levels that are orders of magnitude greater than their native ranges.
Pelagic larval dispersion is assumed to occur through oceanic currents, including the Gulf Stream and the Caribbean Current. It is projected that currents could eventually result in new populations along the Gulf Coast. Ballast water can also be attributed to the dispersal.
Extreme temperatures present geographical constraints in the distribution of aquatic species, indicating that temperature tolerance plays a role in the lionfish’s survival, reproduction and range of distribution. Observational studies have shown that the abrupt differences in water temperatures north and south of Cape Hatteras directly correlate with the abundance and distribution of Pterois. Pterois expanded along the entire eastern coast of the United States and occupied thermal-appropriate zones within ten years. Although the timeline of observations points to the east coast of Florida as the initial source of the western Atlantic invasion, the relationship of the United States East Coast and Bahamian lionfish invasion is uncertain.
Control and eradication efforts
The population density of the invasive lionfish is increasing very fast, and efforts are underway in several areas to bring it under control. However, to completely eradicate the lionfish from its new habitats seems unlikely. A study from 2010 using population modeling used data collected about the known life history of the lionfish inhabiting the Caribbean coral reefs to figure out the best means of eradication. The study showed that the most effective way to even maintain current lionfish population densities, at least 27% of the invasive adult populations would have to be killed monthly. The fact that lionfish are able to reproduce monthly throughout the entire year means that this is an effort that must be maintained monthly for the maintenance of current population densities.
Even to accomplish these numbers seems unlikely, but as populations of lionfish continue to grow throughout the Caribbean and Western Atlantic, actions are being taken to attempt to control the quickly growing numbers. In November 2010, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary began to give out licenses to divers to kill lionfish inside of the sanctuary. This is the first time this has ever been done for any species in the sanctuary, in a desperate attempt to eradicate the fish. Rigorous and repeated removal of lionfish from invaded waters will be necessary to establish control on the exponentially expanding population. Many conservation groups across the Eastern United States are organizing hunting expeditions for Pterois. The Environment Education Foundation recently hosted its third ‘lionfish derby’ in Florida, offering more than $3,000 in prize money for dive teams catching the most lionfish. Community organizations are forming across the country in hopes of halting the ever expanding lionfish population. Divemasters from Cozumel to the Honduran Bay Islands routinely spear Lionfish during dives, sometimes killing as many as eight in an hour. Based on average kills per dive, a professional diver could easily kill 3000 to 4000 Lionfish per year (3 dives per day, 6 days per week, averaging 4+ kills per dive).
Other interest groups, such as NOAA, are setting up events and campaigns that encourage the killing and eating of the fish. Many people are wary of the idea of eating a venomous fish, but when properly filleted the fish is perfectly healthy to eat. Encouraging the consumption of lionfish could not only help to maintain a reasonable population density, but also provide an alternative fishing source to other overfished populations, such as grouper and snapper. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation has even prepared a cookbook to help educate restaurant chefs on how they can incorporate the fish into their menu. The NOAA calls the lionfish a "delicious, delicately flavored fish" similar in texture to grouper. Many recipes for lionfish can be found in coastal cookbooks, some including fried lionfish, lionfish ceviche, lionfish jerky and grilled lionfish.
The invasiveness of the red lionfish is an extreme problem, and relatively little information is still known about the animal. The NOAA has research foci in place to better understand the fish and the implications surround its invasive nature. Some of these include investigating biotechnical solutions for control of the population, and understanding how the larvae are dispersed. Another important area of study is how the population is controlled in its native area. If we find out why it is not out of control in the Indo-Pacific, we may be able to implement a similar concept into the invasive populations, without causing unintended results such as another invasive species. NOAA also plans to further its "Lionfish as Food" campaign, as human hunting of the fish is the only known current form of control. The NOAA also encourages people to report lionfish sightings to help keep a better record of dispersal.
Long term effects of invasion
Lionfish have successfully pioneered the coastal waters of the Atlantic in less than a decade and pose a major threat to reef ecological systems in these areas. A study published in 2006 comparing their abundance from Florida to North Carolina with several species of groupers found that they were second only to the native scamp grouper and equally abundant to the graysby, gag, and rock hind. This could be due to a surplus of resource availability resulting from the over-fishing of lionfish predators like grouper. Although the lionfish has not expanded to a population size that is currently causing major ecological problems, their invasion in the United States coastal waters could lead to serious problems in the future. One likely ecological impact caused by Pterois could be their impact on prey population numbers by directly affecting food web relationships. This could ultimately lead to reef deterioration and could negatively influence Atlantic trophic cascade. It has already been shown that lionfish overpopulate reef areas and display aggressive tendencies; forcing native species to move to waters where conditions might be less than desirable. Studies show that lionfish could be decreasing Atlantic reef diversity by up to 80%. In July 2011, lionfish were reported for the first time in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Louisiana. Sanctuary officials said they believe the species will be a permanent fixture, but hope to monitor and possibly limit their presence.
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