Kermadec Islands - images of lionfishes

By Dr J Floor Anthoni, 2002

Lionfish or firefish as they are called, are found in all tropical seas. The one found at the Kermadec Islands, has been identified as Pterois volitans, but in its isolation, has become more beautiful than any of its namesakes. With its many frilled petticoats, it is purely enjoyable to watch, hence the many photographs devoted to it.

Lion fishes or firefishes occur in all tropical seas. They are small predators extravagantly equipped with wings, folded like petticoats. They represent a pinnacle in evolution, both in shape and in the way they live. Their elaborate fins do not allow them to move fast, but enable them to herd smaller fish into corners of the reef, or to even catch these inside their many frills. Let there be no mistake, it is a fierce predator, catching its prey with a loud suck. Unlike scorpionfishes who have lost their swim bladders, the lionfishes can effortlessly hover above the rocks, using their many ailerons for hang-gliding. They can even do this upside down! Meeting these fish and observing them, defies imagination, hence the many images shown here.

Australian Red Lionfish; Pterois volitansThe Kermadec lionfish has been identified as being identical to the Australian red lionfish Pterois volitans, as shown here. This species is widespread in the Indo-Pacific, including Australia. The first 6-7 pectoral spines of the red lionfish have developed into hard and sharp talons used as legs. These fish have finely radiated and translucent fins, but deceptively, these are quite hard to the touch, as if made of plastic. Protruding from the eye are two antennas (eyebrows) which are long in some, and short in others. The function and meaning of these is unknown, and could well be an indication of sex (male-female).
The firefish is feared by marine creatures and humans alike, due to its poisonous dorsal spines. These release poison into the wound, causing an intensively burning sensation, which can last for days. The pain may be accompanied by sweating and respiratory depression. When approached, the fish will turn its body to face the intruder with its back, pointing its dorsal spines individually as well.
The firefish is related to the scorpionfishes, many of which also have poisonous dorsal and gill spines. Unlike the scorpionsfishes, which lie still in the sand, on the sand or on the rock, the firefish swims around freely in and around sheltered crevices. They are also quite comfortable swimming upside down. Their breast fins (pectorals) consist of two parts: the bottom part has developed into fingers with sharp talons, and the upper part folds forward to form the spectacular wings. The top of the wing is thus the bottom of the pectoral fin. Their belly fins (ventrals) have moved forward and become very large. These fins together, form a kind of catch net with which it catches little fish and crabs.

no eyebrows
This fish does not have eyebrow protrusions. Female?
long eyebrows
This fish has long eyebrow protrusions. Male?
fin rays of rear fins
Detail of the finely splitting polka-dotted hard fin rays of the rear fins (tail, back and anal fins)
Dorsal spines
The hard dorsal spines are easily miscounted, due to two small spines between the front and rear sections of this fin - 13 in all. Note the gaudy white flags topping these poisonous bunting banners.

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f031320: firefish and diver
f031320: Although a little nervous, this lionfish tolerates the diver and the photographer nearby. The picture shows its relative size, but it can grow to 38cm long (twice the size shown).
f030917: firefish at dusk
f030917: At dusk, the firefish congregate in sheltered caves and at strategic points awaiting small fish to return to their narrow coral shelters. Advantaged by low light conditions, this time of day is good for hunting.

f030937c: firefish hovering above
f030937c: A beautiful image of the gaudy petticoats and frills of the lionfish. Notice how its breast fins fold over and forward, changing from short fingers to long wings. In this species, the wings are particularly showy and fully webbed. Notice also the very large ventral fins, almost joining the breast fins. This particular animal has no eye protrusions (eyebrows).
f031820c: firefish fireworks
f031820c: A lionfish has cautiously left its cave, now silhouetted against a clear blue sea. It shows clearly 11 long dorsal spines and two smaller ones.

f030920: lionfish in its cave
f030920: lionfishes can also be dark coloured, from red to dark brown. The younger ones are black to brown.
f030924: firefish close-up
f030924: This closely cropped image shows the colourful details of the lionfish: its finely radiating fin rays with black dots, splitting  half way its tail and once again further aft; its finely painted stripes and wide polka-dotted banners on dorsal and pectoral spines.

f031819: firefish exiting its cave
f031819: A fine display of firefish gaudiness, set against a background of purple and green rock.
f031820: fireworks
f031820: Firefish contrasting against a deep blue sea of very clear water. This image was taken at Macdonalds Rock, near Macauley Island. These fish are found on all islands of the Kermadec group.

f031131: five lionfish in cave
f031131: Firefishes are often found congregating in caves and crevices. Their elaborate shape gives the moving water good cause for tossing them around, hence their prevalence for shelter. In this image, five fish can be counted. Notice the one on left, hanging upside down.
f031132: firefish swimming upside down
f031132: Firefish swimming upside down.

f031125: firefish showing its opulent wings
f031125: Another fine display of the firefish, set against the gaudy backdrop of encrusting coralline algae (pink) and matting sponges (green, yellow, orange, red)