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Laura Klappenbach

Caribbean Reef Fish Fall Prey to Invading Lionfish

By July 25, 2008

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Scientists from Oregon State University report that coral reef communities throughout the Caribbean are being devastated by the invasive lionfish. The predatory fish feeds on unsuspecting native fish with alarming efficiency. The study revealed that in a single 30-minute period, one adult lionfish consumed 20 smaller fish. Additionally, within a five-week period, the lionfish reduced the population of juvenile fish within the study plots by 79 percent.

The message is clear: shortly after lionfish invade a reef, nearly 80 percent of the other reef fish species disappear. To compound the problem, many of the native fish that fall prey to lionfish are herbivorous and feed on seaweed that otherwise crowds the reef. With many of the herbivorous fish gone, seaweed growth explodes, derailing the delicate balance of the reef.

The lionfish is native to the tropical regions of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In its home range, its numbers remain in check thanks to natural predators such as groupers. Also, prey fish in its native habitat are well adapted to eluding the lionfish. But in the Atlantic, the lionfish has few predators. Prey species are unfamiliar with the danger lionfish pose to them.

Scientists suspect that lionfish were introduced into the Atlantic Ocean in the waters off the coast of Florida in the early 1990s. They believe that individuals were released into the wild from aquariums or pet owners. Once released, the fish spread throughout the Caribbean. Populations also expanded northward along the eastern coastal waters of the United States. Lionfish have been recorded as far north as Rhode Island.

Photo © Oregon State University. OSU researcher Mark Albins studying lionfish underwater.

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