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It’s the Muhammad Ali of the sea: It floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. The lionfish is resplendent with its willowy, spiky fins and scarlet, zebralike patterns. Yet it packs a venomous punch in its dorsal, anal and pelvic spines and can easily impale a predator.

The lionfish (Pterois volitans) is itself a top predator on Indo-Pacific coral reefs, meaning very few animals consider it for lunch. The same vivid color bands that warn off potential attackers become obscured in low light, a pity for their prey. This species tends to feed around sunset when other animals are heading home for the night. Since it moves slowly, it has to rely on its imposing figure to ensnare its prey. It will menacingly fan out its pectoral fins and corner a fish or crustacean into a tight spot. Then, quick as a wink, it will devour the victim alive in one big gulp, its huge mouth operating like a vacuum cleaner. The lionfish is so swift that nearby fish might miss the attack altogether, leaving them vulnerable to an ambush as well.

The beauty of lionfish makes them an attractive addition to home aquariums, but be forewarned. While their venom is rarely fatal to people, a brush with its spines will cause throbbing, radiating, sharp pain. Save the viewing for a trip to Wild Reef instead!


See more photos, video and stories of other Shedd fishes in the Interactive section.

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