The scorpionfish family, Scorpaenidae, includes lionfish, dragonfish, and stonefish. They are among the hardiest of marine fish and once acclimated to your tank are quite easy to care for and generally long-lived. They are not, however, for the beginner hobbyist. Stonefish are the most venomous fish known and can cause nasty lesions and severe infection.
Scorpionfish. More commonly called lionfish because of their appearance, scorpionfish have hollow spines that are actually part of the support structure of their dorsal fins. Their fins are long, frilly and flowing and appear to encircle much of the body, like the mane around the face of a lion. All lionfish can be extremely venomous, delivering a painful, though rarely deadly, poison through their dorsal spines when they are frightened or disturbed. They must be handled with extreme care.
Lionfish. These fish are among the most beautiful of fish and although they are found in just about all tropical seas, the most species are found in the Indo-Pacific. They are generally nocturnal and hide out in holes and caves along the reef during the day. They are predatorial and at night will come out to linger – often appearing to hang nearly motionless – along the crest of the reef as they wait for dinner to swim to them. Their long flowing fins and remarkable coloration make them quite a sight.
The lionfish commonly found in an aquarium are of mainly two genera among the 70 or so in this family. The full-sized lionfish typically belong to the Pterois genra and the dwarf lionfish to the Dendrochirus genera. All lionfish require a meat diet, mainly of live brine shrimp, chopped beef heart, clams or fish or other meaty foods. They prefer live foods but if you acquire one as a juvenile, it can be easily trained to eat frozen fish. Their diet in nature consists mainly of small fish and crustaceans. In general, lionfish have no special water quality requirements outside of the norm for a reef tank. Most are well behaved and compatible with other fish as long as their tank mates aren’t small enough to be considered dinner. They need lots of elbow room.
Varieties of Lionfish
Black or volitans. The most common and easily kept lionfish is the Pterois volitans, aka the black lionfish or volitans lionfish. This is the largest of the lionfish, able to reach sizes of 16 inches when fully mature. These fish are unbelievably lazy – so lazy, in fact, that they can seem to be dead when they are merely resting.
Red. P. lunulata is often sold as the black lionfish because they look almost exactly alike. However, the red lionfish lacks the antennae above the eyebrows that the black lionfish has. Both fish are quite impressive, however, and their requirements are essentially the same.
Antennae. Pterois antennata lacks the connective tissue between the spines of the fin rays. The pectoral fin spines are connected only a little, and the dorsal fins not at all. This fish prefers live foods but, like its relatives, will eat just about any meat.
Smaller Types of Lionfish
Shortfin. Dendrochirus brachypterus is an Indo-Pacific and Red Sea native that won’t get much longer than about seven inches. Their care doesn’t differ from the black and red lionfish, and they too will get along great with other fish in the community as long as they aren’t small enough to eat.
Zebra. Dendochirus zebra is also a smaller species reaching only about seven or eight inches when fully grown. This species has a pink body with a series of red brown stripes.
Fu-Manchu. Dendrochirus biocellatus is another favorite dwarf variety. It has a white body with reddish bands and two large dark circular areas outlined in bright yellow. Like its dwarf relatives, it doesn’t get much bigger than about eight inches and requires meaty foods. It will leave bigger fish alone.
Note: Should you get stung by a lionfish, run hot water – as hot as you can take it – over the sting and seriously consider seeking medical attention, especially if you have allergies or if you’ve never been stung before. You cannot be sure how your body may react to such a venom and it wouldn’t hurt to be close to immediate medical help should you be unpleasantly surprised at your body’s reaction to the toxin.