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The Common Lionfish, Pterois volitans



By Bob Fenner

Scorpionfishes: Lionfishes & Much More for Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care

New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

A long-standing species of use in the trade, the most common Lion, P. volitans has been around as long as the marine aquarium hobby. It is a striking beauty and quite easily kept; given sufficient room, not too small or too large and mean tankmates; and subdued lighting.

             In spite of its hardiness, many to most Volitans Lions are lost, make that killed prematurely; mostly from mis-feeding. Thiaminase poisoning and gut impaction from the same source: “feeder” goldfish use is their probable principal source of captive mortality.

            The Volitans is also notoriously one of the two Pteroine species mis-transplants that continue to spread in the tropical West Atlantic. I am hopeful that native predatory fishes like some sharks, large groupers and big morays learn to consume them, controlling their numbers sufficiently; decreasing their predatory pressure in turn.
A “normal” or red Volitans and a black color variety below in Bali. At bottom an errant individual in Cozumel.












Distribution/Collection: This species is found in the tropical E. Indo-Pacific; Cocos-Keeling to the Marquesas, up to Japan and Korea, down to Lord Howe Isl. This species is “replaced” further into the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, East Africa to Sumatra (overlapping P. volitans) by the similar P. miles; the other invasive tropical W. Atlantic Lionfish. The two may be told apart by P. miles fewer dorsal and anal fin spines (10 and 6 vs. 11 and 7 generally). Of the two, P. miles have a vastly smaller presence in the W. Atlantic.

Pterois volitans is “reef associated” hiding under rocks and in caves when the current is moving generally; in ten to more commonly deeper depths, a hundred and more meters. Grows to a maximum of about fifteen inches overall length.  


            For the most part Pterois spp. are sedentary animals, hovering and setting on the bottom the vast majority of the time. Taking care to neither over-feed nor mis-feed too large food items will aid in training yours to be more outgoing. Instead, proffer small food items a few times daily if you can; they can even be trained onto highly palatable brands of pellets.

Here some large Volitans are queuing up for large pellets at Pablo Tepoot’s home.


            Compatibility wise, Lions get along with any motile animal they can’t inhale. Other fishes may pick on your lion; including Angels, Basses, Triggers, large puffers and wrasses. Large morays may consume them. It is best to stock just one lion to a system, as the males can and do fight at times, and they are sensitive to competition. Of course there are many examples of lionfishes of the same and different species growing up and doing fine together.

            A note re taking care when dealing with these venomous fishes; whether they’re alive or dead: Getting poked is no fun… I’ve experienced this a few times. They have hollow spiny dorsal (spines VIII to XVII) and anal fin (usually III). Many hapless aquarists have found relief in heating the punctured area with very hot water immediately; application of steroids is also of use.

            Quite a few fish tankmates are lost by inadvertently getting poked by Lions… Again, a reminder of the need for space for all, habitat (caves, overhangs) for the Lion… and introducing the new fishes with the lights left on for a night or two.


Stocking/Selection: Selecting healthy Lions is a breeze. This fish ships well, and is generally very tough; fish stores only losing theirs to physical trauma or extremely poor water conditions.

            From efforts to urge their reduction in numbers and throughout their natural distribution, Pteroine fishes are popular (and I’ll attest, tasty) human food fishes. IF you have the opportunity, do try a Lionfish entrée or appetizer.


System: Note the “tentacles” above the eyes of Pteroine fishes; these may serve a few purposes; attracting and detracting prey for one, but also as “eyebrows” of sorts, shading out light from above. I bring this anatomical point up to emphasize the need to provide sufficient dark caves and overhangs if keeping these fish, and/or to utilize low intensity, subdued lighting. “Light-blindness” in these Scorpionfishes is very common; most likely from being subjected to too bright illumination, though nutritional deficiency/ies may well play a role.


Feeding: Pterois lions hunt solitarily or in small groups during the night for live prey; small fishes, shrimps and crabs mostly make up their diet… corralling these with their widespread pectoral fins. They can be trained to take food by daylight in time; best by using a purposeful “feeding stick”, dangling, wiggling the live or fresh dead item in front of their lair or face.

            BEWARE of the use of “feeder goldfish”, using silversides or shrimp exclusively in keeping these fish. We receive notes re problems with nutritional deficiencies and Lions constantly on WWM. Once the deficiency is established, the fish rarely rally.


Disease: As mentioned, Lions are typically very tough and disease resistant. IF your system appears to be coming down with something, DO check on improving conditions. IF you have to medicate, Lions are not overly sensitive to the materia medicae used in our interest.


Reproduction: During crepuscular mating times, males turn darker and court one to several paler females. Both ascend to below the water surface, the female releasing two tubular sacs of 2 to 15 thousand eggs which the male fertilizes. These float off with currents, developing into young which hatch out some four days later, settle to the bottom.

            Pterois volitans has been observed to spawn in captivity; but is not commercially produced via aquaculture.


Cloze: So, the archetypal Scorpaeniform fish, the Volitans does deserve its reputation as a great choice for aquarium keeping; given enough room, attention to feeding and appropriate tankmates. Follow the suggestions, admonitions presented here and yours can live for a decade or two plus.


A Volitans lion going out on the prowl for food as the sun goes down in N. Sulawesi.


Further Reading:

USGS report on invasive species; P. volitans:

Schofield, PJ, JA Morris, Jr, JN Langston, and PL Fuller. 2014. Pterois volitans/miles. USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL. 
http://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?speciesid=963  Revision Date: 9/18/2012 

Scorpionfishes: Lionfishes & Much More for Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care

New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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