Twinspot lionfish Dendrochirus biocellatus, copyright Francois Libert.

Belongs within: Scorpaenidae.

Published 13 October 2008

On this page, I’m looking at the tropical fish Dendrochirus zebra (Cuvier, 1829)*, commonly known as dwarf lionfish, zebra turkeyfish, zebra butterfly-cod and doubtless a whole host of others of which I’m not even aware. And a very attractive animal it is too, as you can see in the photo above by K. Uchino. Dendrochirus zebra is a widespread species on reefs in the tropical Indian and Pacific Oceans. A map, as well as a whole heap of other information, can be found on FishBase.

*Things are a little confusing regarding the authority of this species—some sources (including FishBase) cite Cuvier (1829), while others such as Munro (1958) point to Quoy and Gaimard (1824). I have no idea which is correct.

The lionfishes or firefishes are two genera, Pterois and Dendrochirus, forming the subfamily Pteroinae of the family Scorpaenidae, the scorpionfishes (though Smith & Wheeler, 2006, found the pteroines to be more closely related to the Sebastidae rather than the Scorpaeninae). The differences between the two genera are fairly minimal, and a molecular phylogenetic analysis of seven (of thirteen) species of pteroines by Kochzius et al. (2003) failed to resolve their relative monophyly. Dendrochirus zebra was actually originally described as a species of Pterois (Munro 1958), and it seems a return might be in order—proving once again that vertebrate workers tend to oversplit their genera. The name Dendrochirus (“tree-hand”) refers to one of its supposed distinguishing characters, that some of the upper rays in the pectoral fin are branched. The other distinguishing character is that, unlike Pterois, Dendrochirus never has the upper pectoral rays free from the membrane.

The spectacular coloration of the pteroines makes them instantly recognisable, though the above photo of Dendrochirus zebra by Richard Ling shows quite well how the fish are not quite so obvious against a colorful reef background as one might expect. Like other scorpaenids, lionfish are slow-moving ambush predators. Their somewhat glum expression is the result of their relatively gigantic maws, which open up to inhale just about anything that can fit. Lionfish also resemble other scorpaenids in the presence of painfully venomous spines in the dorsal, ventral and anal fins. This toxicity has not prevented D. zebra from becoming popular in the marine aquarium industry. While D. zebra has spawned in captivity (FishBase), the majority of captive specimens would appear to be wild-caught. Unfortunately, FishBase suggests that this species is a relatively slow breeder and moderately vulnerable to overfishing.

One last thing which, though it relates not to Dendrochirus zebra but to another pteroine, is something I stumbled across while researching this post that is just too cool not to share. Take a look at the two photos below:

The above photos come from Fishelson (2006). The upper photo shows a typical individual of Pterois volitans, the red firefish. The lower photo shows a variant with the supraoral tentacles flattened into feather-like ornaments. Such a variant was first sighted near the southern end of the Sinai peninsula in the early 1980s. Since then, records of variant individuals have slowly spread southwards, and have since been recorded as far south as Kenya and the Comoros. While variant individuals remain extremely rare, they do seem to be slowly increasing in abundance…

Systematics of Pteroini
Pteroini [Pteroidae, Pteroinae]LM13
| i. s.: Pteropterus Swainson 1839S57
| |--*P. radiata (Cuvier 1829) [=Pterois radiata; incl. Pterois cincta Ruppell 1835]S57
| |--P. antennata (Bloch 1787)S57 (see below for synonymy)
| |--P. mombasae Smith 1957S57
| `--P. sphex Jordan & Evermann 1903S57
| Parapterois Bleeker 1876 [incl. Parabrachirus Matsubara 1943]S57
| `--*P. heterurus (Bleeker 1856) (see below for synonymy)S57
|--Dendrochirus Swainson 1839LM13, S57 [incl. Brachirus Swainson 1839 (nom. inv.)S57]
| |--*D. zebra (Cuvier 1829)S57 [=Pterois zebraM58, Pseudomonopterus (Dendrochirus) zebraM58]
| |--D. biocellatus (Fowler 1938)MM14
| `--D. brachypterus (Cuvier 1829) [=Pterois brachyptera, Pseudomonopterus brachypterus]S57
`--+--Ebosia Jordan & Starks 1904LM13, S57
| `--E. bleekeriLM13
`--Pterois Cuvier 1817LM13, S57 (see below for synonymy)
|--*P. volitans (Linnaeus 1758)S57 (see below for synonymy)
`--P. russellii Bennett 1831 [incl. P. kodipungi Bleeker 1877, P. lunulata Schlegel 1842]S57

*Parapterurus heterurus (Bleeker 1856) [=Pterois heterurus, Parabrachirus heterurus; incl. Pt. jordani Regan 1905, Pt. macrura Alcock 1896, Pt. macrurus, Pt. natalensis von Bonde 1923, Pt. nigripinnis Gilchrist 1905]S57

Pterois Cuvier 1817LM13, S57 [incl. Macrochyrus Swainson 1839S57, Pseudomonopterus Klein 1756 (pre-Linnaean)S57, Pseudopterus Klein 1756 (pre-Linnaean)S57, Pteroleptus Swainson 1839S57]

*Pterois volitans (Linnaeus 1758)S57 [=Gasterosteus volitansM58, Pseudomonopterus (Pterois) volitansM58, Scorpaena volitansS57; incl. Pterois miles Bennett 1837S57, Pt. muricata Cuvier 1829S57, Pt. rebel Montrouzier in Thiollière 1857 (n. n.)M58]

Pteropterus antennata (Bloch 1787)S57 [=Scorpaena antennataM58, Pseudomonopterus (Pterois) antennatusM58, Pterois antennataMM14]

*Type species of generic name indicated


Fishelson, L. 2006. Evolution in action-peacock-feather like supraocular tentacles of the lionfish, Pterois volitans—the distribution of a new signal. Environmental Biology of Fishes 75: 343–348.

Kochzius, M., R. Söller, M. A. Khalaf & D. Blohm. 2003. Molecular phylogeny of the lionfish genera Dendrochirus and Pterois (Scorpaenidae, Pteroinae) based on mitochondrial DNA sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 28 (3): 396–403.

[LM13] Lautredou, A.-C., H. Motomura, C. Gallut, C. Ozouf-Costaz, C. Cruaud, G. Lecointre & A. Dettai. 2013. New nuclear markers and exploration of the relationships among Serraniformes (Acanthomorpha, Teleostei): the importance of working at multiple scales. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 67: 140–155.

[MM14] Moore, G. I., S. M. Morrison, J. B. Hutchins, G. R. Allen & A. Sampey. 2014. Kimberley marine biota. Historical data: fishes. Records of the Western Australian Museum Supplement 84: 161–206.

[M58] Munro, I. S. R. 1958. The fishes of the New Guinea region: a check-list of the fishes of New Guinea incorporating records of species collected by the Fisheries Survey Vessel “Fairwind” during the years 1948 to 1950. Papua and New Guinea Agricultural Journal 10 (4): 97–369 (reprinted: 1958. Territory of Papua and New Guinea Fisheries Bulletin no. 1).

[S57] Smith, J. L. B. 1957. The fishes of the family Scorpaenidae in the western Indian Ocean. Part II. The subfamilies Pteroinae, Apistinae, Setarchinae and Sebastinae. Ichthyological Bulletin 5: 75–88.

Smith, W. L., & W. C. Wheeler. 2006. Polyphyly of the mail-cheeked fishes (Teleostei: Scorpaeniformes): evidence from mitochondrial and nuclear sequence data. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 32 (2): 627–646.

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