Lionfish Distribution, Geographic Spread, Biology, and Ecology

Science Center Objects

Many aspects of lionfish biology are studied at the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center.  As part of the U.S. Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database, the distribution of lionfish is tracked over time.

Lionfish are spreading through the Western North Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico
Lionfish are spreading through the Western North Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico

The Science Issue and Relevance: Dozens of non-native marine fishes have been documented in coastal waters of the USA; however, only the lionfishes (Pterois volitans and P. miles) have established self-sustaining populations and spread throughout the region. Although there are reports of lionfish sightings from decades past, it is only recently (i.e., since 2000) that the species have considerably  increased in numbers and spread through the Western North Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico (hereafter “the Region”). The remarkable speed with which lionfishes have invaded the region is unprecedented and alarming. At this time it is unclear what effects this new addition will have on native communities, and because the invasion is so recent there are few ecological studies of its impact. Nonetheless, there are several reasons to be concerned about their presence: Lionfishes are predators that consume and compete with native species. 

Methodology for Addressing the Issue: Many aspects of lionfish biology are studied at the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center. As part of the U.S. Geological Survey Nonindigenous Aquatic Species database, the distribution of lionfish is tracked over time. This is accomplished by maintaining a network of contacts across the Region who regularly submit sightings data. Contacts include government agencies (federal, state, and municipal), university researchers, non-governmental (e.g., conservation) organizations, commercial fishermen, and citizen scientists. Records are vetted, geo-referenced and entered into the database. Maps of lionfish distribution and spread are produced for a variety of institutions and media organizations. Modelling studies reveal potential areas at risk for lionfish spread. Studies are undertaken of aspects of the life-history of lionfishes, including diet, habitat use, age and growth and mercury content. Many of these are done in partnership with our partners at the NOAA National Ocean Service, Beaufort, North Carolina, and Reef Environmental Education Foundation, Key Largo, Florida. The PI regularly provides outreach materials, scientific data and interviews to media, conservation organizations and governmental agencies to educate the public regarding potential negative consequences of introductions of non-native marine fishes. 

Lionfish in the aquarium trade
WARC researchers study several aspects of lionfish life-history, including diet, habitat use, age and growth, and mercury content.

Future Steps: Sightings of lionfishes will continue to be collected, verified and entered into the USGS-NAS database. This requires continual networking with government, academic and public organizations to ensure rapid collection of sighting data. Additionally, work on lionfish biology and ecology will continue as the body of knowledge on the lionfish invasion expands. Future work might include innovative methods for detection and trapping of lionfish using remote, underwater cameras with software for identification.

 

Stomach contents collected from a lionfish specimen
Stomach contents collected from a lionfish specimen