Wednesday 7 December 2011


Broadbarred Firefish
Image: Wikipedia
The beautiful, deadly and exquisitely lethal Lionfish. Clear evidence that we can all be murderous and look good doing it!

We're looking at the 15 members of the genus Pterois - shallow water fish found off Indo-Pacific coasts and attaining a length somewhat more or somewhat less than 30 cm (1 foot).

The most immediate thing you notice is their unique, savage beauty.

They are utterly festooned with all manner of elaborate, decorative, sticky-out bits. It's all a bit confusing and surely, an interference and burden in the Lionfish's life. It looks like running in stiletto heels or something.

At least some of these adornments don't seem to serve any obvious purpose. That's those long tentacles above the eyes. Some of the other stuff is a little more clear.

Red Lionfish
Image: Wikipedia
Lionfish have fins that look like they've been immaculately torn to ribbons. Some of them are just partially transparent to create that illusion, but the huge dorsal and pectoral fins really are in pieces. This warrants a closer look. You just have to remember that you don't look with your hands...

That extravagant mane of pectoral fins isn't venomous. The dorsal, pelvic and anal fins however, are. They have fin rays which end in a sharp point, with venom glands at the base. This venom has been shown to weaken the heart of some animals, causing a drop in blood pressure. In humans it can cause terrible pain, vomiting and fever, but death is rare.

Broadbarred Firefish, aka Spotfin Lionfish
Top view, head on the bottom right.
Image: Wikimedia
This stuff is primarily used in defence against predators or to persuade them to not even try it. Sometimes they will even turn their body so that the dorsal spines face the enemy. It's like in fencing when the guy says "en garde." Except he (or she) has a whole bunch of swords rather than just one. And they're all covered in poison.

Lionfish are voracious predators of small fish and invertebrates. Those gigantic pectoral fins are opened out wide to corner prey and cut off escape. With remarkable control over their swim bladder they can get into position, pointing up, down and even upside down to ready the attack. They then swallow their victim whole with unbelievable speed.

You can imagine the terrible problems that could occur if someone unthinkingly emptied their fish tank and threw a hungry, venomous predator into a non-native ocean.

Well, you're in luck! Because you don't have to imagine.

Having been spotted off the east coast of the US in 2002, the Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) has since spread from North Carolina all the way down to the Caribbean. Outliers have even been found off New York and Bermuda, perhaps after travelling on the Gulf Stream when they were tiny larvae.

Red Lionfish
Image: Wikipedia
They seem to have flourished in their new territory, with enough warmth to remind them of their origins around Australia and the Pacific islands.

It also helps that they can produce up to 15,000 eggs at a time. It occurs after complicated courtship rituals which no-one seems to talk about. (They are "not well documented". Pro lingo!) It may be at this time that those tentacles have some sort of use. Perhaps facial tentacles are a lot more sexy than I've ever considered.

Studies of the Red Lionfish indicate that they may produce eggs every month all year round. Or maybe the observers have simply been fooled by the indomitable rise of this ravishing fiend. Either way... oh dear.

Red Lionfish
Image: brian.gratwicke via Flickr
Devastating beauty.
Exquisite and excruciating.
A mixed blessing.


TexWisGirl said...

gorgeous they are!

Emily said...

And apparently, delicious:

Joseph JG said...

@TexWisGirl: They really are, no disagreement there!

@Emily: Now THAT I didn't know!

Kali said...

Thanks for that link Emily, what a great way to approach the problem!

Lionfish are native around my way (Australia), and a delight to see, but like feral cats here, clearly out of place in Atlantic waters!

Joseph JG said...

If you can't beat it, eat it!

I don't know if people would want to do that with feral cats, though. Ah well!

mick said...

I love the Lionfish caption. Great site.

Joseph JG said...

Thanks a lot mick! Don't hesitate to visit again!

Redpilled and Bloodstoned said...

True story: Ursula from The Little Mermaid was originally going to be a lionfish...or maybe a stonefish, but they both do the nasty stuff of which you wrote.

Some concept art is found on the Harold the Merman part of the Disney wiki; Ursula looked less like a drag queen and more like an archfiend....

Joseph JG said...

Wow! I looked that up and yeah, Ursula looks a lot more terrifying there!