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October 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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What Schwarzenegger Movie Title Fits the Lionfish Best?

from the October, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

You might think Predator, right? But actually, researchers are using Terminator to describe the lionfish that is expanding its range in the Atlantic and Caribbean, due to its ability to quickly outcompete local sea creatures. Kurt Ingeman, a researcher from Oregon State University, says whereas most predatory fish hunt only when prey gather in large numbers and a minimal effort is necessary to secure a meal, lionfish are undeterred by dwindling numbers.

When other hunters move on once a mass of prey has dispersed, lionfish will stick around, hunting a local population to depletion. "Lionfish seem to be the ultimate invader," said Ingeman. "Almost every new thing we learn about them is some characteristic that makes them a more formidable predator. And it's now clear they will hunt successfully even when only a few fish are present. This behavior is unusual and alarming."

Ingeman and his research colleagues observed the hunting behaviors of the lionfish close up by erecting artificial reefs in the Bahamas and watching the predator feed on fairy basslets, a lionfish favorite. It's not clear exactly what makes lionfish so willing and able to keep hunting even when there's no longer a critical mass of prey. Scientists know they're exceptionally efficient hunters, but they may also go unrecognized as predators by locals.

Ingeman says he's hopeful local populations can eventually adapt to the lionfish's presence and avoid being terminated. "There's a strong pressure here for natural selection to come into play eventually. We know that fish can learn and change their behavior, sometimes over just a few generations. But we don't have any studies yet to demonstrate this is taking place with native fish populations in the Atlantic."

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