Between two oceans: Lionfish cognition and environmental change

Lionfish (Pterois spp.) are charismatic reef fish, often the highlight of a recreational dive, but there is a face to them that is not commonly known. Native to the Indo-Pacific ocean, lionfish have recently become one of the most successful marine invaders of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. They are generalist predators that consume a wide variety of invertebrates and fishes. With a grand appetite, a stomach that expands 30 times its normal size, and no known predators, Lionfish have caused great damage in the Atlantic by drastically reducing reef fish, with detrimental consequences for the reefs. For instance when algal eaters disappear algae can overgrow corals and destroy reef stability. Also, in the native habitat it seems that lionfish are doing particularly well at deteriorated reefs, but it is not known if this is causally linked. To understand these dynamics researchers have investigated many traits of lionfish, such as reproductive rate, feeding behaviour or dispersal abilities, but we think that their cleverness might be the key. This project therefore aims to provide a better understanding of the role of cognition when animals adapt to new environments. We do this by studying lionfish in the wild in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Red Sea, and in the laboratory at Wageningen University. You can join our team as a thesis student!

Ongoing Projects

Where are the fish ? Citizen Science

Encountering Lionfish (Pterois spp.) upon snorkeling or diving is an exciting sighting to many of us, but behind their flared fins and elaborate coloration lies an efficient predator and one of the most dangerous invasive species in the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. This new-comer from the Indo-Pacific has brought many negative impacts to many reef ecosystems in the Atlantic ocean. Our projects consists of many aspects, like testing lionfish for their behavior and cognition in both native and invasive habitats, to reveal how this fish has become such a successful predator and marine invader, but first we need to know where the lionfish are and where they have spread! To achieve this, we launched a citizen science survey that invites all divers, snorkelers, and beach goers anywhere in the world to help us find out where lionfish are and where they have been by submitting their sightings of Lionfish whether recent or old. In this way we can better track their abundance in the Red Sea, invasion in the Mediterranean, and gain a better understanding of the relationship between their cognition and environment. Please visit the link below to submit your Lionfish sightings!


Red Sea – reef quality vs. cognition

Recently local disturbances have increased dramatically along the Egyptian Red Sea reefs and observational evidence suggests that deteriorated reefs harbour increased Lionfish (Pterois miles) densities. Such alteration of  reefs likely impacts fish behavior. In this project, we investigate the relationship between reef health status and lionfish densities in its native Red Sea habitat. We further examine Lionfish cognitive abilities as one likely factor that could help Lionfish cope and even flourish with environmental change. We ask the following questions: What is the relationship between reef health status and Lionfish densities? Can we expect Lionfish to act invasively in its native range by bringing negative impact to local Red Sea reefs as they do in the invaded Atlantic? On a broader scale, this project aims to expand on our current understanding of the ecological and evolutionary implications caused by anthropogenic stressors in marine ecosystems by studying lionfish ecology and behaviour. For further information about this project and to get in touch, please visit Nada’s Personal Page or follow us on twitter @NadaShanawany.

Cognition of invasion

Indo-Pacific lionfish are efficient predators and lately one of the most dangerous invasive species in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Often their invasion success had been attributed to their morphological and physical characteristics, such as their generalist diet, high reproductive rate, and unique hunting style. What is overlooked though, is how behaviour and cognition may play a role in their ability to invade, so we are investigating this in lionfish. How are cognitive abilities and invasion processes linked? How do animals cognitively adapt to novel environments? What makes some species like the lionfish good invaders and which cognitive traits are important for such processes? To see more detailed information on this project, see Elizabeth’s Personal Page or follow us on twitter @lizwphillips17.

Lionfish cognition

Lionfish have 18 spines that carry a painful venom. Consequently, they seem to have no real predators. How is such a lifestyle linked to their cognitive abilities? Some think that relaxed predation pressure allows for decreased investment in cognitive abilities. So, lionfish may save energy on their brains and focus on building their protective weaponry. Does this mean they are not the sharpest knife in the drawer? We are testing this and several other ideas in the lab. We are slowly beginning to understand just how smart those animals are, and it will be exciting to see how far we can push the boundaries of cognition in these unique animals. Follow us on twitter: @KotrschalA