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Related FAQs: Lionfishes & their Relatives,

Articles and FAQ Files on Related Groups: Keeping Lionfishes and their Scorpaeniform Kin by Anthony Calfo and Robert Fenner, Small Scorpionfishes: Lionfishes and More of Diminutive Size by Bob Fenner Lionfish & Their Relatives, Subfamily Choridactylinae (Inimicinae),, Subfamily Synanceinae, the Stonefishes, Subfamily Tetraroginae, Sailback Scorpionfishes or Wasp Fishes, Family Triglidae, the Searobins or Gurnards, Family Dactylopteridae/Flying Gurnards, Sculpins/Family Cottidae, Hemitripterids (more Sculpins), Cyclopterids (Lumpfishes)

Dangerous Marine Animals
The What, Where, Avoiding and Otherwise Dealing with Biological Stinger, Biters, Pokers as a Diver.

Scorpionfishes: Venomous, but Not Poisonous


by Robert Fenner

Pterois radiata

I’d wager that most serious divers are aware that due to their tropical West Atlantic invasion, Lionfishes are potentially dangerous to touch… that some of their stout fin spines can deliver painful toxin along with mechanical injury. I’d further guess that there is an even larger group that knows these fishes to be delicious to consume; delectable even. But few dive-community people are knowledgeable regarding just how many Scorpion or “Mail-Cheeked” species of fishes there are; but they should be. Several of these are also painfully venomous; though quite a few can also be delightful food items.

            Here I’ll present the usual few examples of incidences of puncture and envenomation; how to avoid such, and a not-too exhaustive systematic review of Scorpionfishes I have encountered. You will be surprised at how many you too have met up with; and hopefully become more cautious in looking for them.

Scorpaeniform Fishes on Parade!

All told there are 25 “Scorpionfish” families, of about 166 genera, comprising some 1,271 species. There are "a bunch" of "Scorpionfishes" to put it mildly. All have large heads bearing spiky processes, with most having large eyes and mouths to match... for the most these fishes are sedentary to slow moving, cryptically marked and camouflaged, serving for surprise attack to stalking fishes... many, but not all are venomous... with hollow dorsal fin spines that can inject (with mechanical pressure) powerful proteinaceous toxin... These stings HURT mechanically and chemically! For brevity’s sake we’ll only cover the groups whose members you’re more likely to come upon.

        Family Scorpaenidae, the Scorpionfishes and Rockfishes. 56 plus genera and 388 species.

Subfamily Scorpaeninae, Scorpionfishes and more. 15 plus genera with more than 150 species.

Iracundus signifer Jordan & Evermann 1903, the Decoy Scorpionfish. Has a marking above the largely transparent base of the anterior dorsal fin that resembles a small fish... that this species undulates as a lure. Indo-Pacific near the ends of reef slopes on sand and ledges. To five inches long. Hawai'i image at night.

Rhinopias frondosa (Gunther 1892), the Weedy Scorpionfish. Indo-Western Pacific; East coast of Africa to the Carolines, southern Japan. To 23 cm. in length. 

Scorpaena plumieri plumieri Bloch 1769, the Spotted Scorpionfish. To eighteen inches in length. Western Atlantic: Massachusetts, northern Gulf of Mexico to southern Brazil, Ascension and St. Helena. Found sitting on rocky bottoms 5-55 meters of depth... ambushing fishes and crustaceans for food. Cozumel image.

Scorpaenopsis diabolus (Cuvier 1829), the False Scorpionfish. Common in shallow sandy, muck and rocky areas in the Indo-Pacific; Red Sea to Hawai'i, Micronesia, Australia. Here in Hawai’i.


Taenianotus triacanthus Lacepede 1802, the Leaf Scorpionfish. Indo-pan-Pacific. To four inches overall length. Usually found amongst reef rocks in an open setting, rocking like a falling leaf. Comes in browns, blacks, yellows, reds. Fiji, N. Sulawesi, and Hawai’i pix.

            Subfamily Pteroinae: The Lionfishes, Turkeyfishes among many other common names. Five genera, 17 species.

Two of the nine species of Lionfishes, Pterois miles and P. volitans have become established in the tropical West Atlantic. Pterois miles (Bennett 1828), aka the Devil Firefish, natural range spans the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. To fourteen inches in length. Here in Egypt’s Red Sea. Pterois volitans ("Tare-oh-ease vawl-it-tanz) (Linnaeus 1758),   lions span the color range of banded red to black against alternating creamy white. Yes, black and red volitans lions are the same species. Pacific Ocean; N. Australia, Japan, Marquesas, Polynesia’s Australs. One in Cozumel.

Though they’re labeled “Dwarf” lions for their diminutive sizes, the smaller Lionfish species are just as venomous. Here is shown the Hawaiian endemic, Dendrochirus barberi off of Kona, and a Shortfin, D. brachypterus in Mabul, Malaysia.

Subfamily Tetraroginae: Sailback Scorpionfishes or Waspfishes. Eleven genera of 35 species.           

Ablabys taenionotus (Cuvier 1829), the Cockatoo Waspfish. Tropical West Pacific; Indonesia, Philippines, Australia. To six inches in length. Found on sand and mud bottoms. A couple photos to show some of the color diversity of this species. Raja Ampat and N. Sulawesi, Indonesia

            Subfamily Choridactylinae (Inimicinae): Two genera, ten species. From browns, reds, whites to mottled in colors.

Inimicus didactylus (Pallas 1769), the Bearded Ghoul. Indo-West Pacific; Thailand to Vanuatu, up to China. To eight and a half inches in length. Very venomous to the touch.  One scared up above the substrate in N. Sulawesi.

            Subfamily Synanceinae, Stonefishes. Six genera, ten species. Very often go unseen, though present.


Synanceia verrucosa Bloch & Schneider 1801, the Stonefish. Indo-Pacific; Red Sea, East Africa to French Polynesia. To sixteen inches in length. The celebrated rock-like pug-ugly Stonefish (there are others called by this name). World’s most widely distributed stonefish and most venomous. Here in S. Sulawesi. 


Some Painful Meet-Up Examples:

            Our dive-trip patriarch, JackM is a long-standing scuba adventurer having logged several hundred dives in dozens of countries around the world. His practice in demanding that our collection of dive friends agree on the “next” itinerary ahead of the coming one has helped us to stay on a schedule of live-aboard and resort experiences for decades. His one serious fault is a lack of caution underwater… a laxity in where his body is and a propensity for “touching things”.

            Some pertinent examples with Scorpionfishes have occurred while Jack and I have been out in N. Sulawesi in Indonesia, Sipadan in Malaysia and Taveuni in Fiji… all involving his apparent carelessness in setting his hands down on the bottom without careful observation. On just one dive in Lembeh Strait Jack touched down on a Scorpaenopsis venosa AND S. diabolus!



A Personal Petfish Odyssey:

            On returning from living in Japan in the late sixties (father was a lifer in the Navy), I resumed working in the field of ornamental aquatics in Southern Cal. On one excursion to the Mecca of wholesalers in Los Angeles I was fortunate to make a sojourn enroute to “Doc” Adams place, Long Beach Aquarium. This location was incredible to me; thousands of not-plumbed together glass tanks for freshwater holding and “refrigerator linings” for marines. In my naiveté I reached into one of these had had a dead Pterois Lionfish floating at the surface… and got stung but good. The take home message here is that these fishes mode of injection of venom is purely mechanical… you and or they or both coming together to force venom from sacks near the base of fin spines… whether the poison-bearer is alive or no. So… even in death, watch how you handle them. 

Prevention: Avoidance!

            Forewarned is forearmed! And speaking about forearms; you’ve got to watch where your body is… and stay off the bottom; rocky, sandy or otherwise. Remember; these fishes rely on hiding in plain view, some under the muck and sand to avoid detection and act as ambush predators. Though some of the “above the bottom” species may seem to aggressively approach divers at times; the vast majority of sting incidents occur from hapless divers setting their hand, legs et al. right on the envenomizing fish. Be aware of your surroundings; look for these fishes. Some species are quite common within their distribution… just overlooked by divers.

Once Stung:

            You’ll definitely know if you’ve been poked… the mechanical injury itself is painful; and depending on just how hard you’ve pushed onto the animal, some venom may be forced into the wound. A sensation not unlike a social insect (bee, wasp…) sting is immediate, followed by a burning feeling, swelling and tenderness from the wound, spreading outward within minutes.

            As with insect stings, reactions vary widely to Scorpionfish venom. Some folks report mild discomfort; others difficulty breathing, paralysis and delirium. IF you’ve been Envenomized, you should exit the water, inform others that you’ve been stung, and soak the punctured area ASAPractical with as warm freshwater as you can tolerate to denature the proteinaceous venom. Severe reaction, concerns call for immediate medical attention.

            Fish hard-spine (anterior dorsal, anal fin) wounds are painful period; potentially leaving antigens in you whether there is venom involvement or not. The wound itself should be cleansed, dried and a topical anesthetic applied; followed by covering the area with a non-binding, light bandage.

            Some folks have advocated, relate actual using of analgesics of various kinds, Benadryl… If you are partial, and not allergic to these compounds; they may grant you some pain relief.

Some good numbers to have on hand in addition to 911: National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. 911, DAN +1-919-684-9111


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