Common lionfish (Pterois volitans)

Also known as: Lionfish, Red lionfish
GenusPterois (1)
SizeLength: 38 cm (2)

The common lionfish has yet to be assessed by the IUCN.

A striking, boldly-patterned fish, the common lionfish (Pterois volitans) has distinctive bands of red and white stripes and conspicuous, elongated, fan-like fins (3) (4). The red and white stripes are intermingled with varying reddish, golden brown and black-brown bars or stripes, alternating against a pale yellowish-white background (4) (5). A row of white spots is usually present along the lateral line (5) (6).

The long pectoral and dorsal fins of the common lionfish are transparent and covered in rows of dark spots. The pelvic fins are black with numerous white spots (6). Characteristic fleshy tabs around the face and numerous projecting spines on the head vary in their shape and size, but are typically long on juveniles and somewhat leaf-like on the adult (3) (4) (5).

The larva of the common lionfish has a large head with a relatively long, triangular snout, as well as long, serrated head spines. Juvenile common lionfish have very little distinctive colouring and appear mainly translucent, with only slight red-white colouration to the pectoral fins (7).

The common lionfish is native to the western Pacific Ocean, from southern Japan and southern Korea, throughout Indonesia, Micronesia and French Polynesia to Lord Howe Island, the east coast of Australia and the Kermadec Islands of New Zealand. In the South Pacific Ocean the common lionfish is distributed from Western Australia to Marquesas and Oeno in the Pitcairn Islands (2) (3) (4) (6).

In parts of its range the common lionfish is considered an invasive species, and it is now known to inhabit the waters off the eastern coast of the United States from Florida to New York. It has also been found in the waters off the Bahamas and as far south as the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean (4). There are also unverified records of the common lionfish elsewhere in the Caribbean Sea (6). 

Occurring down to depths of 50 metres, the common lionfish inhabits lagoons, turbid inshore areas, and coral or rocky reefs (2) (3) (4) (6). There are also reports of the common lionfish occurring in bays, estuaries and harbours (4) (6).

During the day, the common lionfish will shelter in unexposed places, such as under ledges or in caves and crevices (2) (4).

The common lionfish feeds on a wide variety of small fish, shrimps and crabs. It hunts primarily at night, stalking and ambushing its prey by spreading the pectoral fins out wide and corralling its prey into a corner, before rapidly swallowing it whole (2) (4) (6) (8).

Although the common lionfish is usually found alone in the non-breeding season, during courtship male lionfish will aggregate with multiple females to form groups of three to eight fish (3) (5), performing a suite of complex courtship and mating behaviours. The elaborate courting display is performed by the male and includes circling, following, and leading the female, as well as using its many spines in territorial displays with competing males (6) (7).

The female lionfish releases two mucus-filled egg clusters (3) (4) (5) (6) (7), each containing between 2,000 and 15,000 eggs, which are fertilised externally by the male (3) (5). The adhesive mucus that binds the clusters together dissolves after several days, releasing the eggs into the water and allowing them to develop as free-floating, planktonic larvae (6) (7). Dispersal of the common lionfish occurs during this pelagic larval phase, during which individual larvae can be travel great distances in the water column (7).

The common lionfish has venom glands positioned at the base of most spines. Used for both predator deterrence and to facilitate prey capture, the spines are encased in a sheath with two grooves that contain venom-producing tissues. When the spines enter the skin of prey or a potential predator, the sheath around the spines is depressed and the tissue releases potent venom into the puncture wound. The venom of the common lionfish contains a neurotoxin which reduces the transmission chemical signals to the muscles, as well as affecting the cardiovascular system (3) (4) (7).

There are no known threats to the common lionfish.

A widespread and common species, there are no conservation measures in place to protect this species within its native range.

Along the coast of the U.S. and around the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the common lionfish is considered to be an invasive species. In these areas, the common lionfish is the subject of targeted control efforts in order to prevent it spreading further, and to protect native species from being out-competed for food and habitat (7).

Find out more about the common lionfish:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. UNEP-WCMC (January, 2011)
  2. FishBase (January, 2011)
  3. Smithsonian Marine Station - Pterois volitans (January, 2011)
  4. Florida Museum of Natural History - Red lionfish (Pterois volitans) (January, 2011)
  5. World Association of Zoos and Aquariums - Red lionfish (Pterois volitans) (January, 2011)
  6. Ruiz-Carus, R., Matheson Jr, R.E., Roberts Jr, D.E. and Whitfield, P.E. (2006) The western Pacific red lionfish, Pterois volitans (Scorpaenidae), in Florida: evidence for reproduction and parasitism in the first exotic marine fish established in state waters. Biological Conservation, 128: 384-390.
  7. Morris, J.A., Akins, J.L., Barse, A., Cerino, D., Freshwater, D.W., Green, S.J., Munoz, R.C., Paris, C. and Whitefield, P.E. (2008) Biology and Ecology of the Invasive Lionfishes, Pterois miles and Pterois volitans. Proceedings of the 61st Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, Gosier, Guadeloupe, French West Indies.
  8. Whitfield, P.E., Gardner, T., Vives, S.P., Gilligan, M.R., Courtenay Jr, W.R., Carleton Ray, G. and Hare, J.A. (2002) Biological invasion of the Indo-Pacific lionfish Pterois volitans along the Atlantic coast of North America. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 235: 289-297.