Dozens—Perhaps Even Hundreds—of Lionfish Likely Launched the Atlantic Invasion

By Christie Wilcox | December 27, 2017 8:00 am

The first wave of invaders likely numbered 48 or more, according to new research. (Credit: kzww/Shutterstock)

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped it’s way across the southern US. Southern Florida, where Andrew made landfall, was one of the hardest hit areas. It’s estimated that over 100,000 homes were damaged, and 63,000 were destroyed—among them an expensive beachfront house with a very large and memorable aquarium. That aquarium contained six lionfish, and when it broke, they were swept into Biscayne Bay. And so began the lionfish invasion into the Atlantic.

… at least, that’s what many people believe, because the story has been told over and over again. Nevermind that there are obvious flaws—the first lionfish off the coast of Florida was actually spotted 7 years earlier, for example. Also, genetic studies have found more than six unique maternal signatures.

But a new study in PeerJ puts this legend to rest once and for all. Armed with population genetics theory, Jason Selwyn and his colleagues modeled the invasive population under different scenarios to estimate the number of introduced lionfish needed to end up with the genetic diversity seen today. According to their analyses, even if the tale is true, six lionfish don’t even come close to making a difference. That’s because it took dozens, maybe even hundreds of lionfish to invade the Atlantic.

A Numbers Game

All invasions begin when an animal is transported from the land of their ancestors into a new world. But one animal isn’t usually enough—that animal also has to have a mate. And then their offspring must successfully have offspring, and so on and so on. During the early days, pioneers are vulnerable. One ill-timed rock slide or simply unlucky genetic disease could easily snuff out a potential colonization event. That’s why invasions are rarely begun by a single couple.

Based on a species’ life history traits—what age it matures, how often it breeds, how many offspring it has each time, etc—and population genetics theory, scientists can model how different starter populations may fare over time in a probabilistic manner. So, they can ask what is most likely to happen over some number of generations if a few individuals colonize a new area. And from this kind of data, they can calculate the reverse, too—to end up with what you have now, what was the most likely size of the founding group?

That kind of modeling estimate is what Selwyn and his colleagues from Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi did. Using what scientists know about the genetics of lionfish in the Indo-Pacific and the life history traits of the animals, they estimated how many lionfish are most likely to have led to the invasion. And they varied the scenarios to get a range of estimates—in some, they accounted for Allee effects—the natural way that small populations tend to be hampered. And they varied things like how likely an individual fish is to survive and reproduce, or the number of juveniles versus adults.

In the most generous scenario—assuming that all the fish were breeding adults, that they did not suffer much from being a little group, they bred like champions, and that the starting population was more diverse than we currently think—they estimated that the bare minimum number of colonizing female lionfish was 24. More realistic estimates suggest 44, 59, or even 136 females. And the more females, the less likely it is that they all mated with a lone male. So if you assume each had their own mate, the most likely starting population was anywhere from 48 to 272 fish total. And the upper estimates say that number could be as high as 950!

Moral of the story: don't release your pets, even if they're this beautiful. Photo Credit: Tjasa Car/Shutterstock

Moral of the story: don’t release your pets, even if they’re this beautiful. Especially if they’re this beautiful. (Credit: Tjasa Car/Shutterstock)

Given those numbers, the authors conclude that the aquarium trade is still responsible for the invasion—but it wasn’t a single Floridian. Instead, a combination of large and small releases most likely caused this invasion.

And that story makes much more sense. When aquarium industry took off in the ’70s and ’80s, it’s not hard to believe that novice hobbyists got a little overzealous. But they soon realized these pretty fish were troublesome to care for: they eat just about anything they fit into their mouths (including your most expensive piscine pets!), and their venomous spines are not fun to run into while cleaning tanks. So, they got rid of them. And since killing the animals seemed cruel, many simply let them go. Most probably had no idea the animals didn’t belong in the Atlantic.

By trying to be kind, they accidentally introduced a monster. A beautiful monster, for sure, but a monster none the less.


Citation: Selwyn et al. 2017. Simulations indicate that scores of lionfish (Pterois volitans) colonized the Atlantic OceanPeerJ 5:e3996. doi:10.7717/peerj.3996


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ecology, More Science, select, Top Posts
  • Uncle Al

    We do know that Mediterranean-invaded Caulerpa taxifolia was a single cell release just below Jacques Cousteau’s Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. A decade later it covered 7400 acres and went after the whole world.

    • John Thompson

      Of course that was a plant, not an animal.
      That algae also reproduces asexually.
      So just one is all it takes.
      There is no reason why it should be legal to have “pets” that are invasive species in the surrounding area.
      With the millions of laws on the books in the US, surely there was room for one more.
      A law like that could easily have prevented the invasive pythons that are doing immense damage to the Everglades as they march their way around the edge of the Gulf Coast. (They already studied them and determined that they will survive winters well inland in GA, MS, LA and TX.)
      People have no idea how damaging these lion-fish are.
      There was no reason why things like that should be legally sold as pets.
      BTW, if you can’t pet a pet then you can’t call it that.

      • OWilson

        Most problems in nature, as in life are caused by folks who do not obey laws!

        Especially the long forgotten natural law of “common sense”. :)

        • StanChaz

          Come now, laws are only as good, as sensible, and as proper, as the people who create them. And laws are of course subject to change, as a society either progresses and becomes more enlightened – or retrogresses, as with Trump.

          • OWilson

            You nailed the problem!

            “We will have to pass it before we will know what is in it!” – Nancy (Stretch) Pelosi :)

          • Lorie Franceschi

            Why does everything end up beginning whether you like the current administration or not. This should be a discussion about science or nature, not politics.

          • I_of_Horus

            When I see comments like that I assume the poster is a Russian trying to polarize the discussion and ignore them.
            Saves me a lot of exasperation. You should try it!

      • Uncle Al

        The law only affects the law-abiding. Declare something morally forbidden and it will immediately become expensive and desirable.

        • StanChaz

          On the contrary, “the law” (actually many laws in many places) affects everyone in one way or another – whether one follows it, or tries to avoid it, or ignores it and gets into trouble as a result. And I don’t see pedofilia, for example, becoming desirable or popular anytime soon because it is deemed morally forbidden….

      • TANSTAAFL!

        Wouldn’t your definition of “pet” exclude all fish?

        • John Thompson

          Can you pet it?
          Why call it a pet if you can’t pet it?
          It’s just an animal you hold captive.

      • Sam Garcia Jr.

        Well, because anything can be invasive, and the most destructive are cats and dogs and plants, why don’t we ban them? Your logic is extremely flawed. Education is the key. Some regulations are fine, but banning is not the answer.

        • John Thompson

          You are correct about the feral cats.
          We should enforce our laws that make it illegal for cats to be off their owners property.
          Dogs don’t have the same issue – perhaps in part because they are pack animals and a pack of wild dogs generally gets stopped.
          But also because we enforce leash laws much more with dogs.
          A ban on invasive “pets” is the right thing to do.
          The desire of a person to own a python doesn’t justify the destruction they are causing in the Everglades now.

  • OWilson

    “Invasive”, “colonizing”, “indigenous”, “immigrant”, “pest”, and “weed”, are human constructs.

    Mother Nature only sees the survival of the fittest.

    Those evil “colonists”: that “invaded” North America yesterday are today seen as “our poor immigrants, seeking only a better life for their children”

    Either way they change the population for better or worse, depending on your point of view!

  • John Do’h

    Since people have been dumping these Lionfish in the ocean for over 40 years, and the fry can spread hundreds of miles, the concept of an original colony is flawed. Just some luck for the first generations of fry to actually find a mate in the ocean.


Science Sushi

Real Science. Served Raw.

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.


See More


@NerdyChristie on Twitter

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!