Invasive lionfish have novel hunting method

March 2, 2012

Red Lionfish

“Invasive Pacific red lionfish and the Big Bad Wolf have something in common: Both huff and puff to nab their prey. New observations show that these predators, which have invaded the Atlantic Ocean, confuse their prey by spitting eddies of water at them. This deadly weapon, not seen before in fish, could help explain the lionfish’s success in its new world.

The lionfish Pterois volitans (pictured), which typically swims in reefs near Japan and Australia, first arrived in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida in the mid-1980s. Since then, the tiger-striped animal has slipped throughout the Gulf of Mexico and into the Caribbean. It’s a formidable foe for native fish, gobbling down nearly every reef animal in sight, from small guppies to bigger parrotfish. But the lionfish is no ordinary predator. While scuba diving, Mark Albins of Oregon State University in Corvalis and Patrick Lyons of the State University of New York at Stony Brook noticed something strange: When hunting, the lionfish seemed to “cough” right at their soon-to-be-victims.

To understand this underwater hiccup, the team took some lionfish to the lab. There, they plopped them into tanks–laced with food dye to make any water motion easier to see–and taped the predators sneaking up on unsuspecting guppies. Sure enough, before pouncing, the lionfish blew, Albins and Lyons report in Marine Ecology Progress Series. First, the fish slowly paddled toward the guppies, protected behind clear plastic, then they let loose a big gulp of water. The resulting jets extended as much as 10 centimeters and moved at speeds around 20 centimeters per second. These vortices potentially throw prey fish for a loop, the researchers argue, hiding the lionfish’s approach. Although other fish similarly cough to empty their stomachs, no other predator is known to spit their way to a quick kill.”

Read the full article at Conservation Magazine here.

Read Eat the Invaders’ profile on lionfish here.

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