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The lionfish is one of the most beautiful and elaborately decorated fish on the reef. It's striped coloration and feathered fins can serve as a warning to potential predators or assist in camoflage when hunting.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

March 31, 2003
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey as we farewell the Maldives and sail northeast toward Sri Lanka and our next area of research.

After refuelling and provisioning the boat for the weeklong passage to Sri Lanka, the crew was able to partake in one last dive.

One of the most fantastic aspects of scuba diving on a coral reef is experiencing the sheer variety of animals that thrive in this tropical underwater realm. Every dive is different, the crew never quite know what creatures they may encounter, this of course only adds to the anticipation and excitement of the adventure.

Many species of fish are perfectly camouflaged, having evolved to blend into their background to hide from predators, or to increase their chances of sneaking up on prey, or both. If you swim closer to the reef, hang in one place and control your buoyancy in order to avoid touching the coral, you will almost always notice more fish than you would while swimming by it.

It is not only the smaller animals that may escape the gaze of the even the most attentive diver, but the larger ones as well. While diving beneath a large overhang, the crew eventually noticed several lionfish hanging among the soft corals; others sat motionless on the reef floor.

Lionfish belong to the family Scorpaenidae of which there are roughly 310 species. The scorpionfishes have evolved into a range of species, all with slight variations in size, shape, appearance and hunting tactics. Some, like the stonefish, are masters of disguise and deception and are almost impossible to distinguish from surrounding rock. Others, like the decoy scorpionfish, have a dorsal fin that looks like a swimming fish and acts as a lure, while the weed scorpionfish sways its body to look like a piece of debris.

Fishes of this family have characteristically large heads, wide gill openings and one or a combination of tassels, warts and colored specks or stripes that they can change to blend into their surroundings.

The graceful lionfish is distinctive in appearance. Its body is boldly colored in dark brown, red and white vertical stripes, while its eyes are hidden in the color pattern beneath a pair of horn like protrusions. The color fades in the low light of dusk and dawn, allowing the stripes to serve as disruptive camouflage - much the same way as a tiger uses its stripes against tall grass to help it stalk prey undetected. The elaborate disguise of the lionfish has evolved to allow it to sneak up on its prey.

The Scorpionfish family is made up of some of the most toxic species in the world, with the most deadly of all venoms being found in the stonefish. The lionfish is also among the more toxic predators found on the reef, but unlike the stonefish, is more well known for its elegant, elaborately developed pectoral and dorsal fins. The dorsal fin is made up of hollow barbs that are capable of injecting poisonous venom. The fish will typically adopt a 'fanned out', fins erect posture when approached by a potential predator. The spines of the beautiful, feathery fins are not linked together and resemble crinoids (featherstars). This assists the fish in masquerading when selecting an ambush site.

A lionfish with fins 'fanned out', hovers above the reef.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

Lionfish feed primarily on crustaceans, cephalopods and small fishes and have evolved a very successful strategy for capturing prey items. Once a satisfactory site has been selected, the fish will remain stationary until an unsuspecting animal moves within range. The lionfish opens its mouth and snaps at its prey, the open mouth creates a vacuum that sucks the prey in during an almost imperceptible split second movement.

They have also been observed hunting in packs, spreading their massive fins to the side and slightly forward. The fins act as a barrier to cut off the escape route of the prey.

These fish are not aggressive, but like any wild animal, they will defend themselves if threatened. By flaring the dorsal spines, the lionfish sends a warning that potent venom will be injected if approached too closely. However, if the danger remains, lionfish are more likely to flee the area rather than confront an enemy.

This species thrives on healthy coral reefs around the world, but like all reef animals it faces an ever increasing threat from reef blasting and cyanide fishing which removes it from the reef, kills it directly or destroys its habitat.

Always be aware about selecting reef fish for your home aquarium. Only buy from reputable breeders and always enquire where the animals have come from.


  • Coral Reefs are an underwater paradise - Learn more.
  • Roger Payne discusses the tragedy of the live reef fish trade - part 1 & part 2
  • Learn more about Anemone Fish - Click here.
  • What did the crew of the Odyssey report on one year ago in Australia? Two years ago in Papua New Guinea?

    Written by Genevieve Johnson

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