With its large, venomous spines and vibrant striped pattern, the red lionfish (Pterois volitans) appears to be a very intimidating animal. This particular species is one of the largest lionfish species in the ocean; they are distributed throughout the Indo-pacific ocean region. However, they have been introduced to the West Atlantic which has led to an invasive problem.
The red lionfish is a night hunter whereby they often stalk their prey and pounce upon them at lightning speed, similar to a terrestrial lion hunting in the African plains. Their diet consists of small fish and crustaceans found across the coral and rocky reefs of the ocean.
This fish is wonderfully adapted to its reef environment with large eyes to help them see in dim light and an acute sense of smell. Moreover, their fleshy ‘whiskers’ help to disguise the lionfish’s open mouth when approaching prey. They have large venomous spines in their dorsal, anal and pelvic fins which help deter potential predators and these thin spines resemble a mane – another parallel to the African lion, hence the name ‘lionfish’. However, due to their threatening appearance and lack of predators, their populations have grown massively (especially in the Caribbean) which has damaged local ecosystems and food chains.
A few years ago, whilst I was on holiday in Egypt, I was lucky enough to visit the red sea and I saw countless red lionfish swimming alarmingly close to me. I was aware of their venomous spines so I knew to stay away even though their spines are used purely for defence. Whilst you’re alone in the ocean with these bright red fish you are able to see how menacing that vibrant pattern is; their warning stripes are definitely enough to deter any predators.
Sadly, these magnificent creatures are becoming a danger to fragile ecosystems in the Caribbean and the eastern coast of the USA due to humans introducing these fish into the West Atlantic. As an exceptionally skilled hunter, the red lionfish easily out-competes native fish species and this, along with their varied diet, is drastically disrupting marine ecosystems, leading to a reduction in marine biodiversity.