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How Lionfish Became Unlikely Super-Predators

<p>Flickr: Martin Fisch</p>

The Pterois, also known as the Indo-Pacific lionfish, is a beautiful sight to behold. The abundance of red stripes and spiky fins often make the fish look like the flashy burlesque performer of the deep. However, in addition to being visually stunning, it turns out that these attention-grabbing fish are also top-notch predators โ€“ and it might just be throwing off their ecosystem.

In a recent study conducted through Oregon State University, researchers found that the lionfish species were positively depleting the fish they prey on in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

The scientists studied the small fairy basslet, a fish that is commonly preyed upon by the non-indigenous lionfish. Researchers found that in reefs where lionfish were present, basslet mortality rates were four times higher than in those reefs where the basslet only had to contend with other native predatory fish.


One of the researchers from Oregon State, Kurt Ingeman, was astounded at the study's findings. It seems that the lionfish's overzealous appetites could mean disaster for their ecological surroundings. "Lionfish seem to be the ultimate invader. Almost every new thing we learn about them is some characteristic that makes them a more formidable predator. And it's now clear they will hunt successfully even when only a few fish are present. This behavior is unusual and alarming."

It is considered likely that the introduction of such an invasive species into the Caribbean was due to Hurricane Andrew hitting Florida in 1992. During the storm, six of the exotic fish were released into Biscayne Bay when the natural disaster smashed their waterfront enclosure. It is also likely, however, that the aquarium trade is to blame for the influx of lionfish off the east coast, with dissatisfied owners discarding their purchased exotic fish into the ocean.

There is some hope that the lionfish prey can perhaps adapt to the hunting techniques of such a formidable predator, but it is unclear as to whether or not such a change will occur. Says Ingeman, "We know that fish can learn and change their behavior, sometimes over just a few generations. But we don't have any studies yet to demonstrate this is taking place with native fish populations in the Atlantic."