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NURP-supported scientists provide insights into
invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish in the Bahamas

This story entered on 21st May, 2008 07:13:19 AM PST

Coral reef communities in the Caribbean now face a new and potentially devastating threat: the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish. The lionfish is currently on the threshold of the Caribbean basin, and is poised to sweep across this tropical sea, with potentially dire consequences for native coral-reef communities.

In the last several years, members of Dr. Mark Hixon’s lab (Oregon State University) working at the NURP Caribbean Marine Research Center at Lee Stocking Island (LSI), a field station at the southwestern end of Exuma Sound, Bahamas, have documented increasingly frequent sightings of lionfish. These findings have provided an unprecedented opportunity to study the ecological interactions of lionfish with Caribbean coral reef fish communities from the very beginning of the invasion. Hixon’s team has been studying reef-fish communities in this region since the early 1990’s, providing ample pre-invasion baseline information.

During the summer of 2007, PhD student Mark Albins of Hixon’s team documented the recruitment of newly settled lionfish to a matrix of 47 experimental reefs near LSI. Between June and September, 24 lionfish recruited to these experimental reefs. The primary focus of this initial investigation was a controlled experimental test of the effects of lionfish on native fish communities. Results of the experiment show that lionfish significantly reduce the net recruitment of coral reef fishes by an estimated 80%. This huge reduction in recruitment is presumably due to predation (based on field observations of predatory behavior) and may eventually result in substantial, negative ecosystem-wide consequences.

In addition to the field experiment, aquarium feeding trials were conducted that shed light on lionfish feeding habits. Lionfish consumed large volumes of a wide variety of small reef fishes, and quite large fish in relation to their body size. The single exception was that adult lionfish avoided brightly colored cleaner gobies (Gobiosoma genie).

Hixon’s team will return to the Bahamas this summer and thereafter to conduct further field experiments, field observations, and laboratory experiments to answer important questions regarding the invasion and how lionfish interact both directly and indirectly with native Bahamian reef fish and invertebrate communities. Information from this research will be shared with a variety of academic, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations and agencies in the Bahamas, as well as NOAA scientists who are working to build a more complete picture of the overall invasion and spread of the lionfish in the Caribbean and tropical western Atlantic.

NURP supports this research through the Caribbean Marine Research Center, NOAA’s Undersea Research Center for the Caribbean.

More information:

Contact information
Name: John Marr
Tel: (561) 741-0192


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Updated: June 4, 2008