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Pterois volitans - Volitans Lionfish
A Winged Lion for Your Aquarium

The most recognizable lionfish in the marine aquarium industry is the volitans lionfish (Pterois volitans).

Lionfishes from the genus Pterois are quite popular in the marine aquarium hobby. These “winged lions of the sea” (the Greek word “pteron” means “wing”) can be excellent aquarium fishes if provided with the appropriate environment and husbandry. Unfortunately, too many aquarists fall in love with these animals as juveniles without fully appreciating the fish’s needs, especially in terms of size. This article will discuss the popular volitans lionfish (Pterois volitans).

The Most Recognizable Lionfish

The most recognizable lionfish in the marine aquarium industry is P. volitans. “The volitans lionfish is one of the most durable and long lived lionfishes,” says Mark Martin, director of marine ornamental research at Blue Zoo Aquatics. “It is also the largest.” This fish, often called the red lionfish, can grow up to 15 inches in length. “It is often confused with plaintail turkeyfish (P. russeli),” Martin explains, “because of its similar appearance. Nonetheless, the differences between the two can easily be distinguished by the absence of spots on the dorsal, anal and tail fins as well as the absence of the banded markings on the dorsal spine on the aptly named plaintail turkeyfish.”

A Wide-Ranging Fish

The volitans lionfish can be found throughout the Indo-Pacific from the Cocos-Keeling Islands and Western Australia to the Marquesas and Oeno down to depths of nearly 200 feet. It is found as far north as southern Japan and southern Korea and as far south as Lord Howe Island, northern New Zealand, and the Austral Islands. In the Red Sea and Sumatra, the volitans Lionfish is replaced by the devil firefish (Pterois miles). This latter fish is also now found in the eastern Mediterranean—a result, most likely, of the Suez Canal.

Variable Color

Although the volitans lionfish fish is frequently called the red lionfish, this fish is often not red. Probably to aid in camouflage, coastal volitans that live in turbid inshore waters are often darker (even black) than volitans that live on outer reefs. The most common color variations in the marine aquarium hobby are brown to tan, although occasionally individuals with more reddish shades of brown, rust and a very dark brown that is almost black in color are seen.

Environmental Concerns

The volitans lionfish needs an aquarium of at least 50 gallons. The tank should have plenty of hiding spaces and is most interesting if there is a large cave that can be viewed from the front of the aquarium. “Volitans Lionfish are less affected by bright lights then other lionfishes,” says Martin. “This fish will, in fact, spend a lot of its time out in the water column.” Nonetheless, expect a volitans lionfish to spend some time upside down in its cave out of the light, especially if the aquarium has bright reef lighting.

The volitans lionfish will usually tolerate being kept in the aquarium with other volitans lionfish, which can make for a terrific display in a suitably large aquarium that is dimly lit. Make sure to allow at least 40 gallons per lionfish. While this species may be fine with other lionfishes, it will most likely eat smaller fishes, ornamental shrimps and crabs. If a volitans can fit another fish in its mouth, the other fish is not safe and will likely become a meal.

Speaking of meals, volitan lionfish are messy eaters, and, while they are remarkably resilient and have been known to survive dismal water conditions, excellent mechanical (protein skimming, in particular) and biological filtration is essential.

Diet and Feeding

While there are those who may love to show off their volitans lionfish snacking on live goldfish, this is really not in the best interest of either animal. It is true that some lionfish will not readily accept a captive diet (in which case it may be necessary to offer the specimen a live shrimp, small fish or crab at first), but the goal should always be to try to get the fish eating a captive diet. “We actually get our volitans to chase around Blue Zoo Mix,” says Martin, “but people should be prepared to feed live food like ghost shrimp and saltwater mollys.”

One technique that works well is to feed a new volitans live feeder shrimp mixed with frozen mysis shrimp. Over time (days to weeks depending on the individual fish), increase the frozen mysis shrimp and decrease the live feeder shrimp until you have cut out the live food entirely. Eventually lionfish should accept a captive diet including fresh or frozen foods such as krill, shrimp, silversides, and various prepared foods. Once the lionfish is settled in, offer food on a feeding stick, but don’t force the issue. Feeding one to three times a week should be sufficient.

Diseases and Other Malidies

Fin rot due to handling, especially during shipping, is not uncommon and should be treated with furan compounds in a quarantine tank. Copper treatments are highly effective with volitans suffering from any protozoal infections like Crypto (a.k.a. marine ich). Some aquarists report that their volitan is sick because it “coughs” a lot. This is actually normal for all lionfishes, and is a common behavior thought to promote the shedding of skin in order to clean off algae and sessile invertebrates that have attached themselves to the fish.

Aquarist Safety

Finally, a note on managing the risk of keeping a venomous animal. The volitans lionfish is not poisonous, as if often stated. In fact, many species in the family Scorpaenidae are important food sources (including many lionfishes). Volitan lionfish inject their venom by way of their spines (there are venom sacs connected to the spines), and, as such, the spines of a volitan lionfish can cause extreme pain, and, if the aquarist is allergic, a severe reaction can occur. If you do become injured, soak the area in hot water and seek medical attention immediately. In most cases, expect a reaction like a bee sting. If you experience more serious signs and symptoms including, but not limited to, shortness of breath, nausea and fever, seek medical attention immediately.

Published 25 August 2008. © Blue Zoo Aquatics

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