Lionfish

Pterois volitans, Pterois miles

Lionfish are ornamental reef fish native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean. Reaching 12–15 inches in length, they feature long, feathery-looking fin rays and a dramatic reddish-brown and white banding pattern. The fin rays are spiny and venomous; this feature, along with their aggressive nature, make lionfish challenging pets. Nonetheless, lionfish are very popular in the aquarium trade and frequently imported to the U.S. Unfortunately, they have been introduced to coastal Atlantic waters and the Caribbean where they are causing significant damage to tropical and sub-tropical reef ecosystems.

Did You Know?

Lionfish can survive for long periods without eating, then gorge themselves when food is available.

Sustainability

Does the harvest for wildlife trade or captive breeding of this species harm wild populations?

Unable to Rank

No information is available about the status of lionfish populations in their native habitat; however they are not known to breed in captivity.

EcoHealthy Recommendation:

Only acquire a pet that is from a reputable breeder or dealer to ensure that you are not buying an illegally wild-caught and/or imported animal.

Invasion Threat

Does the release or escape of this species into the wild harm the environment and/or economy?

Significant Cause for Concern

Lionfish were introduced to the waters of coastal Florida in 1992, probably from a large home aquarium that was destroyed in a hurricane. Since this time, they have spread and as of 2009 there are large, well-established, and rapidly growing populations of lionfish from the Caribbean, up through Florida to North Carolina. Reproducing populations of lionfish are also present in Bermuda and the Bahamas.

Lionfish are a serious threat to southeastern U.S. and Caribbean reef ecosystems. They are aggressive predators of reef fish and crustaceans and are causing declines of native populations of these species. Lionfish are venomous and have no known predators in their introduced range. In fact, they may be lethal to larger predators that mistake them for native prey. In addition, divers and snorkelers in these areas may be harmed by lionfish stings.

EcoHealthy Recommendation:

Before obtaining any non-traditional pet, check that it is legal to own one in your state of residence and check for permitting requirements. Only acquire a pet that is from a reputable breeder or dealer to ensure that you are not buying an illegally imported or wild-caught animal. Always keep your pet inside a safe and secure enclosure. Never release a pet into the wild.

Ease of Care

Does harvest, captive breeding, transport, or being kept as a pet harm individual animals?

Little Cause for Concern

Ease of care of many non-traditional pets depends on the individual owner’s years of experience and knowledge caring for a particular species. For the purposes of this website, we have geared information toward the benefit of the beginner.

Lionfish may grow to 12 inches in length and require large tanks with ample rock and cave hiding spaces.  The water quality must be maintained with adequate temperature, pH, and “hardness” control.  Lionfish can be challenging pets because they are aggressive and have venomous spines on the majority of their fins.  They may be housed with other fish of their size, but they may prey on fish that are smaller than them.

EcoHealthy Recommendation:

Before acquiring a lionfish, be sure to research its specific care requirements.

Health Threat

Does this animal pose a health risk to native wildlife, humans, livestock and agriculture?

Some Cause for Concern

Lionfish are venomous and dangerous to humans. Venom from their spines is injected into the skin; this often occurs while handlers are feeding fish or cleaning the tank, and fish can sting even after they are dead. Spine punctures are known to be excruciatingly painful, and are treated by immersing the affected body part in very hot water for 30–90 minutes. Although the venom can be fatal to small animals, there are no accounts of life-threatening or permanent damage to human victims.

EcoHealthy Recommendation:

Due to the potential for disease transmission to humans and other household pets, always wash your hands after handling a fish or touching the aquarium water. When purchasing a pet fish ask the seller if the fish or group of fish has a history of any health problems and for a list of any medical treatments the animal or tank has received. 

EcoHealth Alliance works at the intersection of ecosystem, animal and human health through local conservation programs and develops global health solutions to emerging diseases.
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