Lionfish: Terror of the Coral Reefs, Part 3

In recent years, Indo-Pacific lionfish have invaded reefs throughout the southeastern United States, the Caribbean Sea, and much of the Gulf of Mexico, including in Gray's Reef, Florida Keys, and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries. With enormous appetites and no natural predators, these fish are threatening the integrity and health of these precious habitats. But why, exactly, have lionfish been so successful in their new habitats? Hollings Scholar Kelsey Miller worked this summer with Dr. James Morris to find out.


You've probably heard of survival of the fittest—only the best and strongest individuals live to reproduce, causing the entire species to grow stronger and adapt to change over time.

Hollings Scholar Kelsey Miller worked this summer with Dr. James Morris to study how this could be helping a highly invasive species undermine coral reef ecosystems in the Atlantic Ocean.

I set up and manned physiology experiments, looking at the fitness of the invasive lionfish.

The theory is that only the strongest and healthiest lionfish made it through the stress of capture, transport, and captivity while they were aquarium pets prior to being released into the Atlantic in the 1980s. Some call them "superfish."

What we're trying to do is to see how these invasive animals have become so successful, and we're going to try to compare these invaders from the Atlantic to the native Pacific fish.

The fish that have invaded the Atlantic may have some physiological advantages because they started from such a small population.

If the study finds that lionfish in the Atlantic are in fact some kind of "superfish," it could mean trouble for coral reefs. Big trouble.

These invaders eat practically anything, while they have no known predators themselves. When it comes to survival of the fittest, the impact lionfish are having on the native ecosystem could be a turning point in the battle to protect our coral reefs.