of the "Thinking Like a Scientist" Multimedia
What is as graceful and beautiful as a
… as ferocious as the most dangerous
…and delivers a painful sting with
its venomous spines?
It is the lionfish, a native to coral reefs
in the warm waters of the South Pacific and
Indian Oceans. But you don’t have to
travel halfway around the world to see one.
Lionfish are popular in saltwater aquariums
all over the globe. They have recently invaded
the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps released by aquarium
owners. Since 2001, lionfish have spread from
Florida to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and
Paula Whitfield, a fisheries biologist with
NOAA’s National Ocean Service, has chased
lionfish since they were first discovered in
U.S. waters in the year 2000. In the summer
of 2004, Paula and her research team began
to ask questions about lionfish living in the
Atlantic. Their first question was:
How many lionfish are in the Atlantic?
To answer this question, Paula’s team
ventured up to 80 miles off the coast of North
Carolina in the Research Vessel Cape Fear.
In deep-water scuba gear, Paula’s team
established transects, or survey lines, on
the ocean bottom to estimate lionfish abundance.
As the divers swam, they measured a predetermined
distance using a tape measure. They recorded
every lionfish they saw along each transect.
In addition, they recorded the numbers of grouper
and snapper, which potentially compete with
lionfish for food and habitat. They used waterproof
paper and pencils to record data, and
hand signals to communicate. Later, Paula and
her team will use these counts to estimate
lionfish abundance in different habitats and
Another question that Paula and her team asked
Does temperature limit the distribution of lionfish in the Atlantic?
Wherever they counted lionfish, Paula’s
team installed sensors to record water temperature.
These sensors will record the temperature every
30 minutes until the team retrieves them in
the summer of 2005! From the temperature data,
Paula will test the prediction that cold-water
temperatures at the ocean bottom limit the
distribution of the tropical lionfish in the
So, what is the future for lionfish in
Paula and her team collected 155 lionfish
at 19 different locations. Some were juveniles
and others were ready to spawn, a sign that
this population was reproducing! Based on these
early results, Paula predicts that lionfish
are not only reproducing, but they are thriving
off the coast of North Carolina and probably
Paula concludes that lionfish in
U.S. waters, especially in the southeast, will
become more noticeable, and more encounters
between people and lionfish will lead to more
stings. In the end, Paula hopes that the answers
to these questions will allow her to predict
the risk these “alien
invaders” pose to their new Atlantic home.