More Bad News About The Lionfish Invasion (Happy Earth Day?)

By Christie Wilcox | April 22, 2015 2:09 pm
Lionfish I helped catch off the coast of Beaufort, NC in 2013. Photo by Christie Wilcox.

Lionfish I helped catch off the coast of Beaufort, NC in 2013. Photo by Christie Wilcox

As I’ve described before, the Indo-Pacific lionfish in the Atlantic and Caribbean are quite possibly the worst marine invasion everThese toxic predators have been eating their way around for the past few decades, driving down populations of native species and threatening already-struggling habitats. Now, a pair of papers released this month have more bad news: the lionfish are continuing to spread, and they may be eating the very last of critically endangered species.

Lionfish have continued to move southward in their quest for Caribbean domination since their introduction off the coast of Florida. In 2004, Matthew Kimball and his colleagues predicted that they could get as far as Brazil based on thermal tolerances, and now, a decade later, they have.

A new study published in PLoS ONE today describes the very first sighting of a lionfish off the coast of Brazil. The specimen was noticed by a group of recreational divers in May last year off Arraial do Cabo, explain the authors, which include the California Academy of Sciences’ curator of ichthyology, Luiz Rocha. DNA testing confirmed that this individual was related to the invasive population and was likely not a new introduction.

“In Brazil, lower species richness, high endemism and consequent lower functional redundancy of reef fish assemblages suggest that a potential lionfish invasion will have even direr consequences than in the Caribbean reefs,” the authors write in their conclusions. They recommend immediate implementation of a monitoring and remocal program in as many areas along the Brazilian coast as possible to prevent the worst-case scenario from unfolding.

“For the past 20 years, invasive lionfishes have been restricted to the Caribbean,” Luiz Rocha said in a press release. “This new record shows us that lionfishes are capable of reaching far into other areas of the Atlantic, and other countries should be on guard, preparing for them to arrive.”

Rocha was also the first author of a second paper released this month on lionfish. The article, published in Coral Reefs, makes note of lionfish eating a critically endangered wrasse from the inner barrier reef in Belize.

“We found 15 social wrasses in a single lionfish stomach,” said Claudia Rocha, a molecular biologist with the California Academy of Sciences’s Center for Comparative Genomics and co-author of the study. “We expected to see several, but the actual number was surprising.”

Together, these new studies serve to further push ongoing efforts to remove lionfish from their invasive range. “Invasive lionfishes are a powerful enemy to native reef species — many of which are already threatened by habitat destruction and pollution,” said Rocha. “Without natural predators, lionfishes are ‘top dogs’ on the reef. They can easily pick off small, naive reef fish, and do so with gigantic appetite.”

The good news is, as I’ve explained before, lionfish are delicious. The next step is to encourage local retailers to sell lionfish meat, which will help fund removal efforts — an idea that seems to be catching on, as at least some Floridians can purchase the eco-friendly seafood at their local Publix.

The bad news is that these two studies provide further evidence that the lionfish are not only here to stay, they’re going to have continued impacts on reefs throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean. And the ultimate consequences may be worse than we feared, as warming waters from global climate change will likely allow the invasive fish to colonize more areas than previously expected.

If you want to do more for the planet (since it’s Earth Day), why not eat a lionfish? Extra points if you catch and clean it yourself.


Citations: Ferreira CEL, Luiz OJ, Floeter SR, Lucena MB, Barbosa MC, et al. (2015) First Record of Invasive Lionfish (Pterois volitans) for the Brazilian Coast. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0123002. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0123002

Rocha L.A., Carole C. Baldwin, Lee A. Weigt & Melanie McField (2015). Invasive lionfish preying on critically endangered reef fish, Coral Reefs, DOI:

  • Uncle Al

    One does not catch a lionfish because each spine is tipped with venom that will have you screaming in agony when touched. It is a good lesson about the word – Vikings and Irish, Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, ISIS conquest of Arabia.

  • Mike Richardson

    Well, if they could live in freshwater, we could always pit them against the Asian carp. There’s got to be some kind of natural solution to the lionfish, but the cure might be worse than the disease. That’s the problem with invasive species — the only solution might be another alien species with unforeseen consequences to the already damaged ecosystem.

    • Ernie Sal


  • John P Travis

    Maybe this would catch on if it wasn’t $28/lb. If it is such a problem it should sell for $0.99/lb and the harvest could be subsidized.

    • Pamela Conley

      That’s exactly what I was thinking

  • Cam_Barner

    The venom glands are in each spine, which are grooved at the tips. When the spine comes in contact with something (predator or your finger…) the skin around the tip of the spine is pushed back, both puncturing the victim and revealing the venom!

    • nik

      Seems it has something in common with the old ww1 spiked sea mines, nasty!

      • Lars

        Just home from a divetrip to 5 different Caribbean islands. Looks like they all hunt the Lionfish in special bags, then cut their fins off with sissors and after this threat them like regular fish. Looks like this takes away the venom problem. It is served as meals everywhere and taste good. Wrote about it on my blog:

        • nik

          I suppose the spines would make a natural ‘Taser’ if someone had a mind to maybe tip arrows for hunting other animals.
          One meal provides the means to the next.

  • SayWhat?

    I find it silly that we do not include ourselves as part of the natural process of evolution. We call certain situations “man-made”. We use terms like “invasive species” and “endangered species”. But I believe that this is how evolution was meant to proceed. Certain species at certain times dictate events – what lives and what dies and how the ecosystem evolves.

    Perhaps planet Earth is suppose to evolve into a technological “wasteland” where machines we create will one day rule. Perhaps that is the “natural” course of things. Of course, to the machines, the earth will be as it should be – perfectly suited to their existence.

    To us, “natural” means free of contaminants that can harm our idea of what life is. But life is a process that evolves from the simple to the more complex. We will eventually create “artificial” intelligence. But it’s only “artificial” to us because it’s different – not biological. That doesn’t mean it won’t be life.

    And try telling the intelligent creatures we create that they are artificial, and I’m sure they’d disagree and explain that they naturally evolved into existence from us. And then explain to them how all this biological infestation (as they will see it) is natural and ecologically correct.

    It’s all a matter of perspective. I believe we are here to bring to life mechanical life (beings) that can regenerate and live thousands of years – enabling them to travel the stars with no regard to how long it takes to get to wherever they’re going. They have all the time they’ll need. And planet Earth? Well – it may be their mechanical home – or they may leave it behind to start the process all over again. Either way – extinction, pollution – even climate change – is all just temporary. It’s how we perceive things.

    • Brenda Russell

      love this!!!

    • Amber Marielouise R

      You may have a point, but there’s so much destruction occurring to the planet, it’s really dangerous to us, as well. We’ll die out long before the Earth does (more than likely,) but do you not think our future generations deserve the right to know what clean air, water, and soil is? Do they not have the right to see what captivating beauty there is in nature?

      • SayWhat?

        To us, those things are important – but how important is it for us to live with horses? Or perhaps, to hunt for our own food? How important is it for us to know the beauty and lifestyle of living in a cave? These are nostalgic things at best – now that we have houses and cars and we can go to the grocery store for food. Do we miss those old ways – living like “little house on the prairie”? Not really. I’m sure the people of those days who saw the arrival of cars and factories may have said the same thing to themselves – don’t the future generations have the right to live like we do and experience what we have? Because those things were important to them.
        I may be wrong, but I foresee a time when virtual reality will bring future generations more “natural” experiences than we can ever imagine. Clean water will be abundant due to better waste processing and reclamation technologies. I do not see the air getting any worse than it is now – not with all the regulations already in place all over the world. Even China has agreed to some form of limits. If you remember the 70s as I do, you’d know what pollution really was. Streams littered and oily looking, fumes and particulates in the air you could see. Yeah, that was pollution. Today it’s much cleaner.
        As for global warming – it’s actually helped us. The world has been warming for a long time now. NYC use to be under a mile of ice. If the people of those days had the wherewithal to imagine their future generations, they may have hoped we could see the giant glaciers of America and the woolly mammoths too! Do we miss that? No, we prefer our temperate climates instead. And just a couple more degrees C will only open up more land in Greenland, Canada and Russia to farming and bring more freshwater now trapped in the glacial ice into play. More freshwater and more food doesn’t sound too bad. More tropical places. Some species will thrive other will perish – the natural course of things goes on. And our future generations will have no trouble liking the time and world they live in no less than we like ours.
        The only real threat to our existence I see are control freaks. Power hungry individuals who want to tell us all how to live. In the old days they could only control a few million people at a time. Today though, with all the tech out there, I’m afraid that some lunatic new age Hitler will destroy us all. I prefer less government. Not NO government mind you, just less. I prefer the checks and balances written into our constitution that allows for our freedoms and limits those in power. I know I’m getting too political here but this part goes towards how I feel about this whole topic so I must. …. ok maybe I won’t. I just feel that humans sharing the power to make policy will be better than one person or party dictating it.
        I’m sure you don’t agree with a lot of what I’ve said and – perhaps you may even think I’m nuts. But you said it – the earth will outlast us. It has checks and balances too. It would have been a dry Mars or a crispy Venus by now on it’s own. But it isn’t. And that’s because that no matter how much CO2 or methane or whatever other greenhouse gas it’s had in abundance before, there’s always a way to cool itself back down – sometimes too cool for our liking.
        OK, I’VE WRITTEN ENOUGH lol…. tired of hearing myself think. Goodnight.

  • Brenda Russell

    I commend the original comment, they are a beautiful species that have had the resilience to continue to divide and conquer. Why is it that we feel the need to change the world to suit our needs? At the end of the day, If GOD were to eleiminate the most destructive species on planet earth, we would All be extinct if not vanished.

    • Jay Harris

      So if a neighbor’s pet lion escaped and started devouring all the neighborhood cats and dogs we should let it be and consider it natural evolution of the ecosystem? Or we should overturn all the laws that govern human predators preying on the weak and defenseless and call it survival of the fittest? I spear lionfish every chance I get.


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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


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