View underwater footage of the beautiful but venomous lionfish, and the scientists who study them! Paula Whitfield has been tracking lionfish in the Atlantic since their invasion in 2000. In the summer of 2004, Paula and her research team conducted field studies to examine the status of lionfish populations in the Atlantic, and to learn more about their natural history there. Ultimately, they want to better understand the impact of lionfish on Atlantic ecosystems.



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Narration of the "Thinking Like a Scientist" Multimedia Show

What is as graceful and beautiful as a butterfly…

… as ferocious as the most dangerous predator…

…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 to Bermuda.

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 locations.

Another question that Paula and her team asked was:

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 Atlantic.

So, what is the future for lionfish in the Atlantic?

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 elsewhere.

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.