Lionfish Careguide:

Information and Tips for Successful Captive Care and Home Husbandry.

Greg Hix & Renee Coles-Hix

Click on the titles to jump to that particular topic.

General Description. Weaning Techniques.
Lionfish Anatomy and Identifying Characteristics. Housing your Lionfish.
Cuticle Molting. What to do if you are Stung.
Let’s Meet the Lionfish! Identification of Venomous Spines.
Triggers & Lions as Tankmates. Tips for Staying Safe.
Diet.

Don’t forget to click on the arrow after the scientific names to hear it pronounced correctly.

Most lions are friendly and inquisitive.

Most lions are friendly and inquisitive.

One person’s Devilfish may be another’s Turkeyfish, and both of those are yet another person’s Lionfish…are you confused? Not to worry, for the purpose of our little discussion, we’ll call them Lionfish. Lionfish are members of the subfamily Pteroinae, which places them within the family Scorpaenidae. Pteroinae includes five genera and about sixteen species, however, this article will focus mainly on the two genera of lionfish typically found in the aquarium hobby, namely Pterois (large and medium bodied lionfish) and Dendrochirus (dwarf lionfish). Of these two genera, nine species are typically available to hobbyists. We will, however, also include one member of the genus Parapterois, as this fish does indeed occasionally show up in the hobby.

General Description and Habitat:

Lionfish are typically found in the Indo-Pacific, South Pacific, Red Sea, Sea of Japan, and are generally associated with tropical reefs, where they can be seen living on both hard and soft substrates, often in crevices or under overhangs by

The lightning bolt appearance in the eye of this lion is the Retinal Tapetum Lucidum. It's a membrane on back of the retina, that makes the most out of all available light for this crepuscular hunter.

The lightning bolt appearance in the eye of this lion is the Retinal Tapetum Lucidum. It’s a membrane on back of the retina, that makes the most out of all available light for this crepuscular hunter.

day, and emerging to hunt in the dim light of the evening and pre-dawn hours. It is during these low-light hours that the wild, striped patterns and dermal tassels of the lionfish allow them to blend in with shadows and reef growth, similar to the way tigers and leopards blend into the vegetation on land.

The eye shine of this specimen has a blue/green cast.

The eye shine of this specimen has a blue/green cast.

While the identification of certain Scorpaeniforme species can sometimes be tricky, for the most part, lionfish tend to be more clear-cut, especially the dwarf species. All lionfish do share some common morphological traits which include large heads, mouths, and eyes, as well as a bony ridge running from the eye across the cheek (known as the suborbital stay). Long, non-venomous rays are present on the pectoral fins, and of course, there are the stiff, dagger-like dorsal, pelvic, and ventral fin spines which deliver the painful punch of the lionfish’s venom. The toxicity of this venom varies from family to family, with lionfish being the least toxic and stonefish being the most toxic.

This diagram depicts all of the key anatomical landmarks spoke of throughout this guide.

This diagram depicts all of the key anatomical landmarks spoke of throughout this guide.

Cuticle Molting:

Click on the picture of the cuticle above to see our lion actively shedding.

Click on the picture of the cuticle above to see our lion actively shedding.

Although they tend to be more mobile than many of their cousins (scorpionfish, stingfish, and stonefish), most lionfish go through periods of inactivity such as waiting for their evening hunt or sitting around while a meal is digested. During these sedentary periods, various algae, hydroids, bacteria, etc. sometimes decide to settle out of the water column and attach themselves to the lionfish’s skin. Fortunately, lions and many other scorpionfish have developed a very thin protective skin, called a cuticle, which they can shed periodically to rid themselves of these encrusting critters. It is also one of the reasons this family of fish are fairly disease resistant. Contrary to what many believe, this is not the fish’s mucous layer, nor is it the fish expelling venom into the water column.

The frequency of this molting varies from species to species, and in some genera such as Rhinopias, it can be as often as weekly. Prior to molting, the fish may become noticeably dull, and may even have a slight cloudiness to their eyes, since the cuticle covers their entire body. You may also see the fish gilling and contorting its face in particular in an effort to loosen the old cuticle. Finally, most fish give a few darts around the tank, and the old cuticle floats away like a diaphanous, milky ghost. Sometimes a fish may go a bit off its feed while preparing to molt, as they usually can’t see as well during this time. We actually have a P. volitans that faces into one of the closed-loop returns and allows the flow to loosen its cuticle. Once your fish molts, it will be very bright and shiny in its new duds. Of course, a sick/infested fish will overshed its cuticle in an effort to stay clear of parasites. If you notice this, you’ll likely need to intervene medically and treat for a protozoan infestation.

Let’s Meet Some Lionfish:

Diagram illustrating the difference between total length (TL) and standard length (SL) measurements.

Diagram illustrating the difference between total length (TL) and standard length (SL) measurements.

Dwarf Lionfish

Dendrochirus barberi  (Green Lionfish, Hawaiian Lionfish)

Average Size: 5 – 6” TL (13 – 15 cm)
Natural Habitat: Occurs in association with reefs, drop-offs, and rocky caves
Care Level: Easy
Minimum Tank Size: 40 g (~ 151 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Easy

This species is one of the two lionfish indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands and is one of our favorite dwarf lions even though it is kind of a sleeper in the hobby, mostly due to their comparatively drab coloration (mostly grays and browns) as adults. Juvenile specimens often have pretty green banding on their pectorals and long supraorbital tentacles (antennae), both of which are lost as the fish reaches adulthood. The caudal, second dorsal and anal fins are adorned with yellow spots, which are one of the telltale visual traits of this species.  Additionally, this species sports a pair of mandibular appendages, although they are not as pronounced as those seen on the Fu Manchu. Another feature that sets this little lionfish apart from its congeners is the glowing solid red coloration of its irises once the fish matures. No other lionfish shares this trait, and it is indeed something to see. The scales of the barberi have a fuzzy appearance, similar to that of D. brachypterus, and this fish is commonly mistaken as a fuzzy dwarf. The photos of our specimen show how its body and eye coloration change as the fish matures.

Comparison showing the juvenile (left) and adult (right) phases of D. barberi. Note the hint of red in the iris of the juvenile versus the deep red of the adult.

Comparison showing the juvenile (left) and adult (right) phases of D. barberi. Note the hint of red in the iris of the juvenile versus the deep red of the adult.

In terms of habits, this fish is a bit more cryptic than D. brachypterus, however, not terribly so.  Like pretty much all lionfish, they do indeed learn to recognize the “food god” and will be there to greet you.

Care for this lionfish is similar to that of the fuzzy dwarf. As mentioned, this delightful little lion isn’t super common, and isn’t the showiest, but well worth keeping if you can find one.

Dendrochirus biocellatus  (Fu Manchu Lionfish, Two-spot Lionfish)

Average Size: 4 – 5″ TL (~12 cm)
Natural Habitat: Occurs on and around reefs in the Indo-Pacific
Care Level: Moderate
Minimum Tank Size: 30 g (114 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Can be difficult

The Fu Manchu may be a little shy at first, but will warm up to you in no time.

The Fu Manchu may be a little shy at first, but will warm up to you in no time.

This little lionfish is one of the most striking dwarf lions in appearance as well as one of the hardest to keep. The base color of this species is red/orange with dark, almost black mottled stripes and specks on its body with white highlights on its face, mandibular extensions, and fins. These mandibular appendages resemble a mustache, and have given rise to this fish’s most common name Fu Manchu. The second dorsal fin is adorned with two eyespots (ocellae), which give this fish its species name: biocellatus, which means “two eyes”. It should be noted, however, that some specimens do indeed have a third ocellus on this fin (we jokingly refer to these specimens as triocellatus around our house). Their pectoral fins are smoothly rounded and resemble a Fandango dancer’s fans, with only the lower few ray tips forming a serrated edge. All in all, the Fu is a very handsome fish.

You’re probably already wondering why the Fu Manchu is considered a bit tough to keep. There are a few reasons: First, these fish tend to be poor shippers, so acquiring a healthy specimen is of utmost importance. Secondly, they are shy, especially at first, and can be rather difficult to wean onto prepared foods. To that end, it is important for this fish to have plenty of rockwork with caves and overhangs to shelter in until it is acclimated to its surroundings. In my experience, the fact that cryptic fish have places to hide will actually make them more adventurous simply because they know that have a safe house handy if needed.

Finally, the Fu is a fairly weak swimmer, preferring to scurry and crutch along the substrate and rockwork. This results in this species being a poor competitor for food when kept with aggressive feeders. This brings us to the subject of feeding your charge. Fu Manchus are about as cautious and deliberate as they come, and this extends to their feeding habits. Their natural food consists of shrimp and other small crustaceans, so saltwater or freshwater ghost shrimp (gutloaded of course) are the first food of choice for your fish. Once you get your fish accustomed to feeding, you can begin the weaning process, which can sometimes take two or three months for a stubborn fish, or it may never happen at all. Once your fish is weaned, it will usually become a typical lionfish and will accept many different foods from a feeding stick or even the water column.

Click on the picture to see a video of the fast respiratory rate of our D. biocellatus. This is normal for this species.

Click on the picture to see a video of the fast respiratory rate of our D. biocellatus. This is normal for this species.

While we’re discussing the feeding habits of D. biocellatus, we would like to mention their fascinating and bizarre hunting behavior. Once a prey item is sighted, the fish will creep up and begin to shake its head from side-to-side while it flares its opercula. Once it is within striking range of its prey, the lionfish will begin to rhythmically twitch its dorsal spines back-and-forth while vibrating the lower tips of its pectoral rays to confuse the food item. Finally, the lion strikes and sucks its hapless prey into its mouth a la Hoover.

While most lionfish exhibit slow, even respirations, it is important to realize that the fu manchu’s normal breathing rate always seems to be rather fast, so don’t worry if you notice this. One final note regarding the Fu Manchu is that it is probably the most intolerant of conspecifics of any of the lionfish species. Even in larger setups, these fish will seek each other out and fight. It is conjectured that a M-F pair may not fight, however, unlike D. brachypterus, D. biocellatus is not sexually dimorphic/dichromic, thus it is impossible to discern the sex of this species.

Dendrochirus brachypterus  (Fuzzy Dwarf Lionfish, Short-Fin Turkeyfish)

Maximum Size: 5”-6” TL (~ 13 – 15 cm)
Natural Habitat: Occurs in association with reefs, drop-offs, and rocky caves
Care Level: Easy
Minimum Tank Size: 40 g (~ 151 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Easy

Whenever we’re asked to recommend a single dwarf lionfish species, this is our choice, hands down. Fuzzies are pretty, hardy, and personable fish, and have relatively small mouths when compared to many other lionfish species. As their most popular common name implies, the scales of this lionfish have a fuzzy appearance to them. Although these fish come in three basic color morphs (brownish, red, and yellow), they can be virtually any combination of these hues.  The brownish morph is the most common, and the yellows are a pretty rare find, as this color morph is only found in fish that hail from the Lembeh Strait and typically command a high price ($300-$400 usd).

These photos of our Dwarf Fuzzies illustrate three available color morphs.

These photos of our Dwarf Fuzzies illustrate three available color morphs.

Although a little tight, a properly aquascaped 30 gallon tank will house a single specimen, M-F-F trios can be kept in larger setups of at least 60 gallons.  It is important for multiple fuzzies be properly sexed as males will indeed fight.

Fuzzies are generally out and about once they become accustomed to their setup and will brazenly beg to The Food God when they see someone enter the room. Even so, they should be provided with caves and overhangs to give them that comfort factor. In fact, many fuzzies have their own special attention-getting antics, such as learning to spit water at their keepers (they’re surprisingly accurate!).

This little lion makes a great community/reef fish (with proper tankmates of course), and pretty much keep to themselves as long as their tankmates aren’t snack-size and show them the same respect.

Dendrochirus zebra  (Dwarf Lionfish, Dwarf Zebra Lionfish)

Average Size: 5 – 6” TL (~ 15 – 20 cm)
Natural Habitat: Occurs in association with reefs, drop-offs, and rocky caves
Care Level: Moderate
Minimum Tank Size: 40 g (~ 151 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Moderate

The D. zebra is a lion that often succumbs to illness relatively quickly upon acquisition. This beautiful example is a healthy specimen owned and photographed by William Lyon.

The D. zebra is a lion that often succumbs to illness relatively quickly upon acquisition. This beautiful example is a healthy specimen owned and photographed by William Lyon.

The zebra is one of the two most common dwarf lions in the hobby along with the fuzzy dwarf, and one of the three most common lions in general, the third species being the large-

The pattern of the zebra tail is very distinguishable.

bodied Pterois volitans.  D. zebra can be identified by a dark spot on the lower portion of the operculum, the presence of two white spots (sometimes more of a free-form white hourglass) on the caudal peduncle, and dark concentric bands at the base of its beautiful webbed pectoral fins. The pectoral fin membranes extend almost to the fin ray tips, forming a non-incised web.  Like most lionfish, the body pattern consists of alternating dark brown/reddish and light brown/off-white stripes.

In the wild, this little lion is fond of sheltered areas with lower current flow, so be sure to provide it with some sheltered areas in which to rest and avoid fast laminar flow.  In the wild, D. zebra preys mainly on crabs and shrimp, although they will occasionally eat small fish, and like all lionfish is a crepuscular hunter.

Unlike D. brachypterus and D. barberi, this species is not sexually dimorphic, although very subtle differences between the sexes have been reported, such as larger heads and bodies in male specimens.  It is also reported that just prior to spawning, the female zebra takes on a brilliant white color with a dark midsection.  Since it is virtually impossible to sex this species, and males will fight, it’s best to keep a single specimen of D. zebra per tank.

In general, captive care for this fish is similar to that of the fuzzy dwarf.

Medium-Bodied Lionfish

Pterois antennata  (Spot-Fin Lionfish, Antennata Lionfish, Broadbarred Firefish, Ragged Finned Lionfish)

Average Size: 6” – 7” TL (~ 18 – 20 cm)
Natural Habitat: Inhabits lagoon and seaward reefs slopes, typically found in caves and overhangs by day
Care Level: Easy
Minimum Tank Size: 50 g (~ 208 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Easy

The P. antennata is a true gem of the Indo-Pacific.

The P. antennata is a true gem of the Indo-Pacific.

The P. antennata is a very attractive fish marked in the typical striped lionfish pattern, with alternating red/brown and white vertical bands. The rays of its pectoral fins are connected with a membrane that encompasses about half the length of the rays, leaving the outer half of each ray free. The webbed area is marked with (typically) a single row of dark eye spots (ocellae), and the independent tips of the rays extend past the caudal peduncle. The base of the pectorals are marked with two dark, crescent-shaped bands near the fish’s body, and finally, what would an antennae lion be without a pair of long supraorbital appendages?  This fish is frequently mistaken for P. mombasae, and vice-versa, and like most lionfish, P. antennata is not sexually dimorphic/dichromic.

Our specimen took readily to stick feeding, and eats the standard scorp fare of fish, shrimp, squid, lobster, etc. we serve at “Chez Scorp”, although, in the wild, this fish feeds primarily on crustaceans.  To that end, picky eaters or new fish that are being conditioned should be offered live ghost shrimp, small crawfish, or fiddler crabs as first foods.

The antennata makes a great addition to a medium to large fish-only or reef display. A final word regarding tankmates: P. antennata has a rather large mouth, even by lionfish standards, so bear this in mind when choosing tankmates.

Pterois mombasae  (Mombassa Lionfish, African Lionfish, Frillfin Turkeyfish, Devil Lionfish, Deepwater Firefish)

Average Size: 7” TL (~ 18 cm)
Natural Habitat: Reef-associated, often found in association with sponges or on muddy bottoms
Care Level: Easy
Minimum Tank Size: 50 g (~ 189 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Easy

We consider our P. mombasae to be the peppermint angel of the lion world.

We consider our P. mombasae to be the peppermint angel of the lion world.

This gorgeous fish is often confused with P. antennata, as they are indeed very similar in appearance.  Both species sport a pair of supraorbital appendages (antennae), however, the Mombasa’s striping pattern is rather unique in that the red/brown stripes of this fish have an almost fuzzy, textured appearance.  Additionally, it has much larger eyes (almost disproportionately large) than its cousin as well as more numerous, multiple rows of ocellae on its pectoral fins.  They also have a dark cheek spot on the operculum that is absent in the antennata. Most of the specimens we have seen have striping that is so red, they almost resemble peppermint sticks.  On the subject of its large eyes, I should mention that this fish will often be one of the first fish in a given system to have issues with water quality, and their eyes tend to cloud over as a result of poor water quality and bacterial infections.  That being said, we have not found this fish any more difficult to keep than most other lions, providing they receive good husbandry.

As far as feeding is concerned, once weaned, they’re a typical lionfish that will soon recognize its keeper and will pray to The Food God, hoping for a handout.  They do perch a bit, but they spend a good amount of time in the water column as well.  This lion isn’t super common but is a real eye-catcher and a fabulous fish if you happen to find one.

Once you learn the differences in their spot pattern, the mombasae (left) and the antennata (right) are easily distinguishable.

Once you learn the differences in their spot pattern, the mombasae (left) and the antennata (right) are easily distinguishable.

Pterois radiata  (Radiated Lionfish, Clearfin Lionfish, Tailbar Lionfish, Radial Firefish, Whitefin Lionfish, White-striped Lionfish)

Average Size: 6”- 7” TL (~ 15 – 17 cm)
Natural Habitat: Occurs on coral heads, reef flats and lagoons, typically found within caves and crevices
Care Level: Moderate
Minimum Tank Size: 40 g (~ 151 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Moderate

The P. radiata is harder to find than some of the other lions and often suffer during shipping, but their beauty is undebatable and they are a lucky find.

The P. radiata is harder to find than some of the other lions and often suffer during shipping, but their beauty is undebatable and they are a lucky find.

Given our love for all things scorp, we have a hard time saying that a particular lionfish is THE prettiest, but this species would definitely be on the short list.  It is one of the species that we most often field questions about, simply based on looks alone.  Speaking of looks, this fish is easily identified by the two horizontal white stripes on its caudal peduncle.  Radiata lions exhibit broad vertical body bands that are typically dark red/maroon/brown, sometimes with a darkish green/black tint to them.  These dark bands are separated by thin, stark white stripes.  The lower rays of their long pectoral fin are connected by a membrane near the body up to about a quarter of their length, and the membranes of their second dorsal, anal and caudal fins lack color or markings, hence one of this fish’s common names:  clearfin lionfish.  This species typically sports a pair of supraorbital antennae.

Although there are other attributes that ID a radiata, the tail pattern is unique to its species.

Although there are other attributes that ID a radiata, the tail pattern is unique to its species.

Radiata lions tend to ship poorly, so finding a pristine, healthy specimen may take some patience.  However, a few minor dings should heal up and disappear in pretty short order with good food and low-stress tank conditions.  Another thing makes this fish a bit more of a find (and more expensive) is the fact that in the wild, it is a bit rarer than many lionfish species.

Like the other medium lionfish species, P. radiata feeds on crustaceans (mostly crabs and sometimes shrimp) in the wild.  Therefore, a new fish that is being conditioned (or stubborn weaners) should be offered live ghost shrimp, small crawfish, or fiddler crabs as first foods.  Radiated lionfish approach their prey in an interesting forward-tilted, head-down attitude with their pectoral fins outstretched.This species has been dubbed difficult to keep due them being poor shippers, the fact that they are intolerant of poor water quality, and are sometimes difficult to feed/wean.  However, although our specimen did look a bit rough from being in the procurement chain, it is a solid stick-feeder and will eat almost anything it is offered.

Large-Bodied Lionfish

Pterois russelii  (Russel’s Lionfish, Clearfin Lionfish, Plaintail Turkeyfish, Spotless Butterfly Cod, Spotless Firefish, Zebrafish, Red Volitans)

Average Size: 7 – 8” TL (~ 17 – 20 cm)
Natural Habitat: Found on muddy substrates, from well-protected shallow estuaries to quiet, deep offshore reefs
Care level: Easy
Minimum Tank Size: 75 g (~ 284 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Easy

The P. russelii is often sold under the label of Red Volitans.

The P. russelii is often sold under the label of Red Volitans.

Russel’s lionfish can best be described as a volitans in a slightly smaller package, both in habits and care.  It is often seen offered for sale under the incorrect common name red volitans.  I actually asked the owner of an aquarium shop why he mis-ID’d this fish, and he told me “The people who really know, know, but most people don’t, and it avoids confusion”.  I can’t say I agree with the logic, especially since he has a bit of a passion for oddball fish, but I guess it works for some folks.

The P. russelii is most easily identified by the lack of spots on its caudal and median fins, which also gives rise to one of its common names clearfin lionfish. Its white body is adorned with reddish-brown vertical bands, which are sparser and more widely spaced than those of the P. volitans. Additionally, Russel’s lionfish lack the dark markings under its chin that the volitans has. Once you see a Russel’s, you won’t mistake them as P. volitans thereafter.

Note the spots on the caudal fin (tail) of the P. volitans that is absent on the P. russelii. Occasionally a Russels will have spots on their tail, so it's not an identifier.

Note the spots on the caudal fin (tail) of the P. volitans that is absent on the P. russelii. Occasionally a Russels will have spots on their tail, so it’s not an identifier.

Note the lack of chin markings of the P. russelii to the left.

Note the lack of chin markings of the P. russelii to the left.

This fish is bold, and is almost always out and about in the water column.  It is extremely tolerant of tankmates (unless it thinks they’re snack-size), and handles polluted water very well.  If you like P. volitans, but don’t quite have the room for one, P. russelii is for you!

Pterois volitans  (Common Lionfish, Red Lionfish, Turkeyfish, Butterfly Cod, Scorpion Cod, Peacock Lionfish, Black Volitans)

Average Size: 12 – 13” TL (~ 30 – 33 cm)
Natural Habitat: Occurs in association with reefs, drop-offs, and rocky caves
Care level: Easy
Minimum Tank Size: 100 g (~ 397 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Easy

Our beautiful adult P. volitans.

Our beautiful adult P. volitans.

This species is what one would have to consider THEE lionfish.  Whenever a person mentions that they keep a lionfish, it is most likely a P. volitans.  At this writing, we have kept nine species of lionfish, and although each species has its own allure, there is nothing quite like an adult P. volitans in terms of sheer presence and graceful beauty.  They make the ultimate centerpiece fish for the larger aquarium.  Unfortunately, these fish are often offered as 2” juveniles, and many keepers are unaware as to how large and/or how fast these fish can grow, so many specimens end up being cramped and tank-stunted instead of being able to spread their fins and cruise about their tank.

Coloration can be variable, and is generally associated with the geographic location a given fish hails from.  Generally speaking, there are basic two color morphs:  white with black body bands or white with red/brown banding.  There is also a dark, almost completely black color morph that is a bit more rare, but quite interesting to see.  Unlike the Russel’s lionfish, the median and caudal fins of P. volitans have several small dark spots on them.  One of the most noticeable traits of juvie volitans lions are their very long, individually-sheathed pectoral fin rays.  The short membrane at the base of each pectoral fin is clear, and the outer edge is adorned with several ocellae, or eye spots in juvenile specimens.  These spots mimic the eyes of a small cluster of prey fish, and serve to confuse and calm the baby lion’s prey.  However, these spots and the clear membrane disappear as the fish grow.  As the fish mature, they also grow into their pectorals, thus, you may see some adult specimens with short pectorals and a squatty, bulldog-like body, while others retain a fair amount of their pectoral fin sweep.  There is the supposition that the difference between shorter and longer-finned specimens may be geographical locale.  Juvenile specimens also exhibit two supraorbital tentacles (antennae) that typically disappear as the fish ages, although there are some adult fish that keep them for life.

P. volitans is typically very easy to feed and wean, and weaning is often accomplished by simply adding a chunk of food to the water column, as this species has a voracious appetite. Their maximum prey size is often underestimated by aquarists who watch in horror as their adult volitans slurps down a 6”+ long tankmate in the blink of an eye.

This species is probably the most forgiving of all lionfish species in terms of water quality and other forms of negligence visited on them by the aquarist.  In fact, in the past, this fish was sometimes used to cycle new setups, as they could handle the various spikes in water chemistry.  One of the most often made mistakes with this fish is to under-tank it.  Even a smaller adult will end up being a 12” cube (including fins), so they require a minimum front-to-back depth of 18” just to be able to turn around comfortably.

lionfish-careguide-23

Think a lion and a trigger make good tankmates? Click on the picture to see Jerry Barbian’s video as to why this coupling may become a problem.

People frequently try to mix volitans with triggers. Some people have had success, which can be found more frequently with the pelagic species of triggers. And then there is the more common outcome of a lion and a trigger below. It’s your risk. Have a plan “B” if it doesn’t work out.

Just always remember, that adorable face you see at the LFS…..

lionfish-careguide-24

will soon turn into a lion-sized adorable face.

lionfish-careguide-25

In a two year span, this lion went from a walnut to a football.

Temperate Species

Parapterois heterura   (Bluefin Lionfish, Blackfoot Lionfish)

Average Size: 5”-6” TL (~ 13 – 15 cm)
Natural Habitat: Usually found on open reef flats, in sheltered coastal bays and fine sand or muddy habitats.
Care Level: Difficult
Minimum Tank Size: 30 g (~ 114 l)
Frozen Food Conversion: Difficult

This rare and elusive species is mostly known from specimens brought in as bycatch from commercial trawlers, thus, very little is known about its natural diet or social habits.   Bluefins are gorgeous little lions (we consider them a dwarf species).  They have the body and pectorals of the Dendrochirus lions, the mustache of the Fu Manchu, and the dorsal spines of a Pterois lion.  Their bodies are gray with various shades of cinnamon-colored banding.  However, their most notable visual trait are the electric blue broken bands on the axillary surfaces of their pectoral fins which are used

The electric blue bands of the pectoral fins, lends to the beauty of the fish.

The electric blue bands of the pectoral fins, lends to the beauty of the fish.

The common name

The common name “Black foot” comes from the notably black pelvic fins.

as flash colors to warn away and confuse predators.  The pelvic fins of the bluefin are typically black, hence the common name “blackfoot lionfish”.  Finally, the trailing edge of their caudal fin is perfectly straight (squared-off), with the uppermost ray elongated to form a streamer.  If it weren’t for the difficulty in keeping this fish, it may very well be the perfect lionfish in terms of appearance and size.

Another interesting habit of the bluefin is the fact that they are often seen out in the open resting or even partially buried in shallow depressions which they excavate in the soft substrate.  When startled, this lion will rear up in its depression, directing the business ends of its dorsal spines toward the attacker.  If the attacker persists, it will flash its pectorals and rotate itself 360º in an effort to bewilder the offender as well as to have the ability to defend itself in place.  It will leave its foxhole only as a last resort.

(Personal Anecdotal Information Regarding the Husbandry of  P. heterura:)

This little lion is definitely a rare find, and a special case, as to have even a small chance of keeping it alive for any appreciable length of time, it must be kept under temperate conditions (less than 65ºF).  We have been fortunate enough to have had our specimen under our care for well over a year, however, the early months were indeed rough).

We consider the P. heterura to be the most beautiful out of all the lions. We had ours 1 year 7 months before we lost him when he jumped out of the tank. Cover your tanks!

We consider the P. heterura to be the most beautiful out of all the lions. We had ours 1 year 7 months before we lost him when he jumped out of the tank. Cover your tanks!

Although some hobbyists have reported their fish simply dropping dead, we and at least one other hobbyist we know of have found that bluefins seem to be quite susceptible to bacterial infections, which present rapidly, and ragingly.  We had one specimen that literally had its lower jaw melt off almost overnight (not a pretty thing to see).  However, our other specimen (we had purchased two of them) would get an odd-looking lesion or hole in its pectoral, and we administered oral antibiotics immediately.  Each time, we were able to arrest and heal the infection.  I should also note that each time this occurred; we lowered the temperature of the water by a few degrees (we had begun at 70 ºF).  Once the water temperature hit 63ºF, we stopped seeing these outbreaks.  Coincidence?  Maybe, however, there are much fewer bacteria in a closed system at colder temperatures, and a much greater dissolved oxygen content (it has been theorized by some that this fish may be sensitive to low dissolved oxygen content).

Our specimen is a solid stick feeder, accepting most of the fare we feed to our other scorps.  However, although it does eat well, it doesn’t strike the food very hard and has a small mouth, so smaller food items work best.

Bluefins seem to be available in the early-mid springtime, so if you’re looking for a real challenge and have a dedicated temperate setup for this fish, you might want to give the bluefin a try.

lionfish-careguide-29

Please Don’t Feed Me Goldfish!:

Your lion will not be getting a proper diet through the continued use of readily available feeders such as Goldfish and Rosy Reds.

Your lion will not be getting a proper diet through the continued use of readily available feeders such as Goldfish and Rosy Reds.

Now that we have your attention, let’s discuss feeding your lions.  First of all, let’s talk about live feeder fish.  The flesh of freshwater fish does not contain the proper fatty acids required to keep saltwater predators healthy.  This is especially true of members of the carp family, such as goldfish, koi, and rosy reds.  Another big problem is that these fish also contain high concentrations of the enzyme Thiaminase, which inhibits the uptake of Thiamine.  An extended diet of freshwater feeders usually results in poor growth rate, disorders of the nervous system, clamped fins, cessation of feeding, and you guessed it, an early death.

Another food to avoid is krill, frozen or freeze-dried.  Krill has been linked to lockjaw in many predatory species, and although it is typically well-received by most fish, it is not recommended.  In fact, some people in the hobby refer to freeze-dried krill as fish crack since some fish will decide they will only eat this food and nothing else once it has been offered a few times.

About now is where you might be wondering “OK, smart guy, just what DO I feed my fish?” so let’s find out:

Live Foods:

While we don’t recommend a steady diet of live food, it may be necessary to feed newly acquired specimens live fare initially to get them eating, or in some cases, where certain fish are difficult, or simply refuse to be weaned onto dead foods, this may be their diet for life.

Ghost or grass shrimp (fresh or saltwater) are both excellent foods, especially since they can be enriched (gutloaded) with nutritious goodies like high quality flake food, spirulina, beta glucan, etc. simply by feeding your feeders a last supper or two of nutrition-packed goodies.

Ghostshrimp are visibly enriched with Spirulina and Astaxanthin.

Ghostshrimp are visibly enriched with Spirulina and Astaxanthin.

Livebearers, such as guppies, mollies, or platies are also good choices.  These fish can also be enriched prior to feeding them out.  You may want to go the extra mile and convert them to brackish or full saltwater if this will be a long-term feeding option.

Appropriately-sized damsels make great feeders, and can sometimes be ordered in lots at a discount at some LFS or e-tailers.  We usually give these fish a 20-minute freshwater dip prior to feeding them out to decrease the risk of introducing parasites.

Live saltwater minnows or anchovies also make tasty treats, so if you have access to them, and can find them of appropriate size, they are a good alternative if live foods are necessary. Be careful of collecting them off of wharfs or piers, as the water in these areas are often tainted with pollutants.

We would like to note that smaller specimens will also hunt down live pods with great relish and will decimate a tank’s population in fairly short order.

Fresh/frozen foods:

Freezing pieces of fresh fish makes for convenient separate frozen chucks come feeding time.

Freezing pieces of fresh fish makes for convenient separate frozen chucks come feeding time.

Silversides are an excellent food since they are easily stuffed with pelletized food, powders such as spirulina, vitamins (C, B6, B12) or beta glucan, etc.  One can also find many other frozen foods in the freezer at the local fish store (LFS), however, I find that a wider variety of fresher, high quality seafood is available at the grocery store or local fish market.  Surprisingly, when purchased in small amounts, it is actually less expensive to feed your lions people-food rather than fish food.  Some of the foods we’ve had good success with are red snapper, salmon, tuna, cod, shrimp (uncooked, shell-on), lobster, scallops, clams, and squid.  Try what’s on sale, try different foods to see what your fish find tasty.  These foods can be cut up into bite-sized chunks, placed into bags and frozen for later use.  If you arrange individual feeding bags, it is easy for a fish sitter to feed the fish should you be out of town for more than a few days for some reason.

Smaller specimens will also take mysis (we use Hikari and Piscene Energetics), and even brine shrimp (we use Hikari Brine Shrimp Plus).  With the exception of one of our stingfish which eats PE mysis from a pile on the substrate, these foods are simply thawed, rinsed, and placed into the water column.

We’re often asked “how large should the chunks be?”, and although it depends on the size and species of the fish and its mouth size, if you stay right around the size of the fish’s eye or just a tad larger, you’ll never be wrong.  If your fish happens to get a larger chunk than you had planned and seems to be choking, what the fish is actually doing is repositioning and softening the food item prior to swallowing.  If this happens a lot, try giving the fish smaller chunks.

For a detailed article regarding weaning techniques, be sure to read  Tools of the Trade: Feeding Techniques.

Feeding Frequency:

Due to their sedentary nature and slow metabolism, adult lionfish should only be fed twice or three times a week.  Feed them until you see a slight bulge in their bellies, once you see this, you will understand my meaning.  We do, however, feed our juvenile specimens a bit more often since much of their caloric intake is used for growing.  A good feeding schedule for us has been to feed the adults Monday-Wednesday-Friday.  Our juvies typically get a bit of food each day between normal feedings.

Given the chance, many lions will overeat, sometimes to the point of regurgitation, which obviously, should not be encouraged.  In a short time, you will get a feel for how many food items of appropriate size make up a meal for your fish.

Overfeeding your fish on a long term basis will likely shorten its life due to hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver degeneration).  Additionally, owing to these fishes’ slow metabolism, large food items can sometimes begin to decompose in a lionfish’s digestive tract before it can be digested, resulting in bloating and death.  Don’t worry if this paragraph seems scary, it’s simply helpful to know.

Housing Your Lionfish:

Due to their sedentary nature, lionfish can be kept in tanks from 30 gallons on up, depending on species.  While it is always best to research the aquascaping requirements of a given species, a tank with a good amount of surface area as well as height is a good choice.  Fu Manchus will appreciate long or wide tanks as they do little, if any, swimming.  Although most lions will live in bare-bottom setups, we have had good success with #1 or #3 grade aragonite as a substrate material, and quite frankly, we prefer the look of substrate.  Live rock caves and overhangs are appreciated by most lions, as well as stands of macroalgae, which also aid in water quality via nutrient export.  A bit of rubble here and there on the substrate will complete the setting.

Biofiltration should be robust, no matter what type of equipment you use, as lions tend to produce a pretty fair amount of waste.  Also, many of the foods they eat are a bit oily, so I recommend a good skimmer and surface turbulence.  Sump-based systems will boost water volume and are my favorite option.  Again, lots of live rock and macroalgae are your friends.

Open aquascaping will give your lion a lot of room to swim. There must also be areas of overhangs and caves, for when they want to perch.

Open aquascaping will give your lion a lot of room to swim. There must also be areas of overhangs and caves, for when they want to perch.

Generally speaking, lionfish are not very fussy about their lighting requirements.  For the most part, they are crepuscular (dawn/dusk) predators, so their lighting can be simple normal output (NO) fluorescents, however, they are just as happy under brighter lighting, provided they have a dimmer spot to shelter in if they so desire.  So, the rule of thumb is to light their tank with lighting suitable for their tankmates.  Whatever type of lighting you use, a dawn/dusk photoperiod using actinic and daylight lamps would be a perfect lighting scheme.

Lionfish make excellent reef candidates, as they have no interest in coral, and will not harm them.  Frank Marini, noted lionfish aficionado and guru, has coined the phrase that lions are reef limiting in that they will indeed eat ornamental shrimp, crabs, and any fish that will fit into their often cavernous mouths. One thing I do want to mention is that on rare occasions, some lionfish decide they like a certain coral (typically a softy) and will use that coral as a perch/resting spot.  If this happens, and it seems that the coral is stressing, try moving it, although I have had a P. volitans find the same coral in its new spot and continue perching on it.

One final word of caution: believe it or not, lionfish can and will jump from the aquarium, and this is especially true of the dwarf species. To prevent your pet from becoming lionfish jerky, you’ll want to cover the tank with plastic eggcrate, netting, glass, etc.

”The Big Question”…What Do I Do If I’m Stung?

Disclaimer: This treatment guideline is not meant to replace appropriate professional medical treatment when available. Its focus is to help provide First Aid as a first response before seeking medical treatment when necessary. If you utilize any information provided in this document, you do so at your own risk and you specifically waive any right to make a claim against the authors of this guideline for the results or consequences of any attempt to use, adopt, adapt or modify the information presented in this document.

You’ve probably been wondering this in the back of your mind ever since you decided to read this article, haven’t you?  We could go into the mechanics of how the venom is injected, however, this is really more of a lionfish primer, and we’d hate to have you nodding off.  That being said, the absolute best advice we can offer is “DON’T GET STUNG!”  However, accidents do happen, and what can we say?  It’s going to hurt… just how much depends on which species you take the hit from, its size, how much venom is injected, and the time the spine is embedded in your skin.

Injuries inflicted by a P. volitans. Within 48 hours envenomation (left) and 5 days (right).

Injuries inflicted by a P. volitans. Within 48 hours envenomation (left) and 5 days (right).

First aid for a lionfish sting is the immersion of the affected area in hot water (114°F) for 20 up to 90 minutes, or until the pain subsides, in order to inactivate the thermolabile components of the venom. The reason for applying heat to the wound is because lionfish venom is composed of heat labile proteins, and the heat actually denatures the venom. Please, don’t use scalding-hot water, as the resulting burn will likely do more damage than the venom. To ensure the proper temperature have a cooking thermometer on hand.

Don’t worry, your life really isn’t in danger from the effects of the venom. That being said, you need to guard against secondary infection of the wound as well as make certain that there are no pieces of the spine left in the wound, which can cause infection. A tetanus booster is recommended if it is past due. To that end, you may want to seek professional medical assistance, just in case.

Know what spines are venomous and which are not? Avoid anything shown in red!

Know what spines are venomous and which are not? Avoid anything shown in red!


Fortunately, in over 20 years of keeping venomous fish, neither of us has ever been stung (knock on wood), so we can’t tell you what it feels like.  However, we’re not in a hurry to find out, as we’re told it really hurts.  One thing that may make lions a bit more dangerous than other scorpionfish in terms of getting poked is the fact that they are very inquisitive, and some of the bolder specimens that become very accustomed to you will swim around the exact spot you’re working in.  Tapping these fish lightly on their tails can teach them to mean go to a neutral corner, and they will typically stay there.  Could this backfire on us someday?  You betcha, however, here are some tips for working in the lion’s lair:

  1. Always respect the fish, and know where they are at all times when working on the tank.  If you happen to be performing a chore that requires a lot of your concentration, you may want to enlist the aid of a spotter to let you know if the fish is nearby (this is a perfect job for young helpers).
  2. Never make the fish feel threatened or cornered.  Perform your work deliberately and in a non-threatening manner.  Get to know your fish, and let it get to know you.  Lionfish are pretty intelligent and will become accustomed to you working in their box of water.
  3. Know the warning signs that a lion has gone into a defensive posture.  They will typically erect their dorsal spines and assume a head-down position, thus bringing their daggers to bear in the direction of the perceived threat.
NEVER underestimate your lion!

NEVER underestimate your lion!

Concluding Remarks:

Although marine aquarists have been keeping lionfish and their kin for quite a while, it is our hope that this article has piqued your interest in them. They are interactive, peaceful, hardy and disease-resistant fish, each with their own distinct personality, and they are certainly one of the most easily-recognized group of fish you are likely to encounter. Our “Scorp Jones” began with lionfish, and it has been a pleasure sharing our passion for them and giving you a window to their care and habits, as well as other useful information and tips based on practical experience for keeping them successfully. Happy lion-taming, and remember: You’re not in Kansas anymore!

* All photos/illustrations/movies/ are the property of Lionfish Lair © unless otherwise stated in the caption below each individual picture/media.

Bibliography:

Auerbach PS. Marine Envenomations. N Eng J Med. 1991; 325:486-493.

Kizer KW. McKinney HE, Auerbach PS. Scorpaenidae Envenomation: A Five-Year Poison
Center Experience.
JAMA 1985; 253: 807-810.

Marini, Frank C., Ph.D. 2010.  Lionfishes and Other Scorpionfishes

Michael, Scott W. 1998.  Reef Fishes, Vol. 1 (pp. 453-489)

Vetrano, SJ, Lebowitz, JB, Marcus, S., Lionfish Envenomation. Journal of Emercencey Medicine. 2002, Nov 23(4): 379-82

Smith, William and Wheeler, Ward., Venom Evolution Widespread in Fishes: A Phylogenetic Road Map for the Bioprospecting of Piscine Venoms. 2006, June 1: 206-217

Online Sources:
Fish Base: FishBase.org
Marini, Frank, Ph.D.: The Lionfish Info Sheet: Captive Care and Home Husbandry
Fatheree, James W., M.Sc.: Lionfish Envenomations and the Aquarist
Gallagher, Scott A., MD, FACEF; Adler, Jonathon, MD. Lionfish and Scorpionfish. 2011, May 12.

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