Attack of the lionfish

Lionfish are eating fish out of their homes

These predatory lionfish might look fancy, but they’re not fussy eaters – much to the chagrin of the Caribbean’s native inhabitants.

 

Genetic research suggests the majority of the Atlantic’s lionfish population originate from just a handful of specimens – purportedly six fish that escaped from a Miami aquarium amidst the chaos of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. That was all that was needed for this prolific and aggressive breeder to take a stranglehold on the region’s already frail coral reef ecosystems.

A single female can lay as many as two million eggs in a single year, and with no natural predators, the lionfish population is expanding at an unsustainable rate. As many as 1,000 fish have been recorded in a single acre in some areas.

This gluttonous fish will feast on practically anything that will fit in its mouth – it’s been recorded making dinner of over 50 different species. This is a disaster at both ends of the food chain. Capable of munching 20 small fish in just half an hour, the lionfish outcompetes the waters’ native predators and deprives the reef of species that keep algae levels in check.

 

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Lionfish are also known as dragon fish or scorpion fish because of their spiky appearance and predatory nature.

Herd mentality

Lionfish hunt their prey by trapping them in corners, flaring out their pectoral fins to herd them into danger, before suddenly striking and swallowing their prey whole. They are capable of devouring fish that are as big as two-thirds their own size.

Self-defence

The lionfish isn’t just an environmental pest; it’s capable of delivering a painful sting to humans. Its back is lined with 18 spines, each coated with a potent neurotoxin. But contrary to popular belief, lionfish stings are rarely fatal.

Top-level predator

Lionfish have plenty of predators across their natural range, such as eels, sharks and groupers. But in the Atlantic, larger fish shy away from the alien intruders, allowing the population to boom. In one of many innovative approaches to control the lionfish’s numbers, divers in Honduras are training local sharks to hunt them for food.

 

 

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Photographs: TchamiDamien du Toit