2001-Mon Jul 23 11:54:50 EDT 2018
Vetstreet. All rights reserved. Powered by Brightspot.
Vetstreet does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. See Additional Information ›
Stephen Broadbelt remembers when he first spotted lionfish (Pterois volitans) in the waters off Grand Cayman. It was in January 2008, some 20 years after it is estimated that these beautiful but venomous fish — native to the Indo-Pacific — were accidentally introduced to the Atlantic and Caribbean, probably in the 1980s. That wasn't the first time aquarium fish had been released into the ocean, but the lionfish is the only invasive species known to have survived and thrived in the Caribbean. Broadbelt, who co-owns Ocean Frontiers, a dive operation on Grand Cayman’s East End, says if you had asked any marine biologist 20 years ago if such a thing were possible, the response would have been a resounding “No way.”
“That would have required a male and a female to both survive and to find each other in the open ocean and to choose to spawn and reproduce again and again," he says. "So for the lionfish to be able to do this shows how strong they are at establishing themselves in a reef ecosystem."
But what might seem like a happy ending for the lionfish has been a catastrophe for the reef system. The spiny and aggressive piscivores grow quickly and reach sexual maturity early and then reproduce in large numbers, allowing them to outcompete other fish of their size on the reef on all levels. They eat reef-grazers such as parrotfish and damselfish, with the result that those fish aren’t around to keep the reef free of algae. When algae take over, they smother the corals and kill the reef.
The effect of lionfish predation was first seen in the Bahamas, where fish diversity plummeted after the arrival of the lionfish. Then the lionfish rode ocean currents to new territory and can now be found at other islands in the Caribbean, all the way to Belize and Honduras in Central America. And their presence is taking a toll. In some Atlantic locations, the voracious predators have wiped out 95 percent of native fish.
Stephen A. Smith, DVM, Ph.D., is a professor of aquatic medicine/fish health and wildlife and exotic animal medicine at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Va. He’s an avid scuba diver whose travels have taken him throughout the Caribbean. In the past three years, he has seen a significant increase in lionfish populations.
“The biggest change I have seen is the dramatic and alarming decrease in native fish species, along with the dramatic increase in lionfish numbers,” he says. “Lionfish are top-of-the-line carnivores and eat everything and anything they can catch. As lionfish are not native to the Caribbean, they do not have any natural predators, so their numbers go unchecked.”
Pamela J. Schofield, Ph.D., a research fishery biologist with the United States Geological Survey, would not have predicted the possibility of lionfish establishing and spreading so widely and worries that more fish will follow. She wonders if it’s a symptom of increasing global trade, noting that more than 30 species of non-native marine fish have been found off the coast of Florida alone.
Like this article? Have a point of view to share? Let us know!
Take our breed quiz to find your next pet.
Bartonella is a type bacteria that can be transmitted to cats, dogs and humans from exposure to infected fleas and…
Want to give your pup yummy, low-calorie treats? We’ve got the skinny on which foods are OK to feed him.
Not sure about food puzzles? Our veterinarian reveals why the payoff for your pet is well worth any extra work.
With these simple dental care tips, you can help keep your canine’s adorable smile shiny and healthy for life.
The friendly and inquisitive LaPerm has an easy-care coat that comes in a variety of colors and patterns.
Check out our collection of more than 250 videos about pet training, animal behavior, dog and cat breeds and more.
Wonder which dog or cat best fits your lifestyle? Our new tool will narrow down more than 300 breeds for you.
If the video doesn't start playing momentarily,
please install the latest version of Flash.
Thank you for subscribing.