Potentially Misidentified Species:
Pterois volitans is unmistakable for any other marine fish of the western Atlantic.
II. HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Pterois volitans is native to the western Pacific (from southern Japan
and southern Korea to the east coast of Australia, Indonesia, Micronesia and
French Polynesia) and South Pacific (from western Australia to the Marquesas
and Oeno in the Pitcairn Islands) (Schultz 1986 Myers 1991, Ruiz-Carus et al.
2006). The species has recently been observed and collected from the U.S. east
coast from Florida north to Long Island, New York (Whitfield et al., 2002).
Pterois volitans has yet to be observed or collected from the IRL proper,
but it has been collected from coastal waters at both the northern and southern ends of the IRL region. At the northern
end of the IRL system, collections have been made in coastal waters off of
Ponce Inlet, south off of Daytona and Cape Canaveral, and approximately 40 km
SE of Port Canaveral. To the south, repeated observations and collections have
been made in coastal waters off of Lake Worth, located approximately 40 km
south of Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County.
Red lionfish inhabit lagoons and turbid inshore areas and harbors as well as
offshore reefs in their native range (Schultz 1986, Myers, 1991), so concern
exists as to whether the species might eventually become established within the
IRL proper and within other Florida estuaries as well. On the west coast of
the state, P. volitans is considered a potential invasive of the greater
Tampa Bay ecosystem (Baker et al. 2004).
III. LIFE HISTORY AND POPULATION BIOLOGY
Age, Size, Lifespan:
The largest Pterois volitans 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
Baker et al. (2004) indicate that the species typically grows to 15-30 cm.
Detailed abundance information for this recent invader to the U.S, Atlantic
coast is lacking, but collection data and anecdotal observations suggest
Pterois volitans is established and reproducing in Florida waters and
that local populations are likely growing (Whitfield et al. 2002, Ruiz-Carus et
Pterois volitans reproduction is sexual and involves external
fertilization of eggs and a suite of complex courtship and mating behaviors
(Ruiz-Carus et al. 2006). The species is generally solitary outside of the
reproductive season, but during courtship, males will aggregate with multiple
females to form groups of 3-8 fish. Fishelson (1975) indicates that competing
males use their spines and fins in agonistic visual displays. Females release
a pair of mucus-encapsulated clusters of 2,000-15,000 eggs to the pelagic
environment where they are fertilized by the male. Environmental microbiota
break down the egg mass mucus to free the eggs and facilitate hatching.
Ovarian and testicular histological examination by Ruiz-Carus et al. (2006)
suggests P. volitans reproduction in Florida occurs early in the year.
Embryonic development within the egg masses is evident around 12 hours
post-fertilization, and larvae hatch out within around 36 hours of
fertilization. The larvae become competent swimmers 2-3 days after hatching,
capable of capturing and consuming ciliates and other small zooplankton
The typical larval duration of various lionfish species likely falls in the
range of 20-40 days (Whitfield et al. 2002). The congener P. miles is
10-12 mm at when metamorphosing from larva to adult (Fishelson 1975), and the situation is probably similar
for P. volitans.
IV. PHYSICAL TOLERANCES
Pterois volitans is a tropical species, but it nevertheless exhibits a
fairly broad thermal tolerance across its native and introduced range.
Although juvenile individuals have been collected as far north as Long island,
New York, these individuals were almost certainly spawned in warmer waters of
the U.S. southeastern coast (Meister et al. 2005).
Thermal tolerance studies by Kimball et al. (2004) reveal an average lethal low
temperature for P. volitans of 10.0°C and a low temperature at which
feeding ceases of 16.0°C. These findings suggest red lionfish should survive
typical winter temperatures on the U.S. east coast as far north as Cape
Hatteras, NC, while it remains unknown if animals can overwinter north of this
point (Whitfield et al. 2002).
Pterois volitans is a marine species, although it is found in inshore
lagoons in its native range. Juvenile individuals have been collected off the
northeastern U.S. continental shelf where salinities are typically in the range
of 30-33ppt, somewhat lower than salinities in southeastern coastal waters
(34-36 ppt) (Whitfield et al. 2002).
V. COMMUNITY ECOLOGY
Pterois volitans is a predator on small fish, shrimps, crabs, and
similarly sized animals. The species actively hunts in open water at night
Allen and Eschmeyer (1973) note a hunting behavior in which P. volitans
spreads its pectoral fins to corral prey items which it then ingests in a
single rapid motion.
A parasitic leach, Myzobdella lugubris, was found attached to the
tongue of a red lionfish collected off of Jacksonville, FL. While this leach
has been found on some two dozen freshwater and estuarine fish species, and on
the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), and a grass shrimp (Paleomonetes
pugio), this finding represents the first record from a marine fish
(Ruiz-carus et al. 2006).
VI. INVASION INFORMATION
Pterois volitans is one of the most popular marine ornamental aquarium
species, and this is the most likely avenue of introduction of this species to
the U.S. Atlantic coast. The first documented release of red lionfish in the
southeast was an accidental release of 6 individuals. This resulted from resulting from the Hurricane Andrew-related destruction of a large private aquarium located on
a porch at the edge of Biscayne Bay in 1992 (Courtenay 1995). These fish were
observed alive in the adjacent habitat several days later.
Between 1993 and 2002, sporadic and often unsubstantiated sightings of P.
volitans from the Florida east coast were recorded. Then, in February and
March 2002, 3 specimens were caught off northeast Florida, near St. Augustine,
Jacksonville, and Amelia Island. Two of these specimens were sent to the
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research
Institute (FWRI) where positive identification was made (Ruiz-Carus et al.
North of Florida, collections and observations of red lionfish began in 2001
with the capture of a single adult individual off Georgia and two juveniles off
Long Island, New York. Since then, further collections and observations of
live P. volitans occurring in natural habitats off Florida, Georgia, the
Carolinas, New jersey, and New York have been made (Whitfield et al. 2002, Hare
and Whitfield 2003, Ruiz-Carus et al. 2006).
The observation of small aggregations of 2-4 P. volitans during manned
submersible-based research dives off North Carolina and South Carolina in 2002
offer compelling evidence that a reproductive population may be established
there. Although courtship behaviors and actual spawning were not observed, the
typically solitary P. volitans usually forms small groups as a prelude
to courtship and reproduction. Histological examination of an adult female
specimen collected off of St. Augustine, FL, also suggests reproduction is
occurring there, based on a regressed state of the mature ovaries indicative of
a post-spawning condition (Ruiz-Carus et al. 2006).
If P. volitans has become established in Florida, it is believed to be
the first marine (non-estuarine) non-native fish to successfully do so.
Potential to Compete With Natives:
A broad array of suitable prey species for Pterois volitans occur on
Florida reefs, as do a number of predatory fish with which this non-native
species may come to compete over trophic resources (Fishelson 1975, Sano et
al. 1984). Detailed information on Florida P. volitans population sizes
and their food habits remains lacking, however.
Possible Economic Consequences of Invasion:
The potential economic impacts of Pterois volitans in Florida and
elsewhere in the southeastern U.S. have yet to be assessed. The species is
venomous and as such may pose a threat to fishermen and scuba divers.
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J. Masterson, Smithsonian Marine Station
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Page last updated: December 1, 2007