Although they aren’t among the fastest predators of the reef, new research shows that lionfish can still catch fast prey by simply being persistent and gliding slowly in pursuit until the right moment. Researchers report that the discovery may explain a part of the lionfish’s impression as an invasive species. It also reveals a key hunting strategy other slow predators use. Lionfish are characterized by their long, striped spines. They can hide behind coral reefs to conceal their incredible silhouettes long enough to ambush small fish and stalk them. The predators can also be found in open water, where they are more visible.
A comparative biomechanist Ashley Peterson and her colleagues were curious about the behavior of predators in plain sight. They positioned red lionfish in a tank and observed them hunt blue-green Chromis, a small reef fish. The lionfish were successful in consuming their prey in 14 of 23 trials. The lionfish also achieved a high strike rate, capturing the Chromis at 74% of trials in which they attempted to strike. The Chromis was able to swim twice the speed of Lionfish on average. Many still fell prey to what Peterson, and biomechanist Matthew McHenry at the University of California, Irvine, called a persistent predation tactic. The Chromis swims toward the lionfish and aims for its current position. It does not aim to catch its path. The team discovered that the lionfish pursued them relentlessly. Peterson states, “If they are interested in something and want to try it, they just seem not to give up.”
On the other hand, its prey does rapid swimming bursts with short pauses. Peterson states that over time, the uncertainties add up to allow the lionfish to get closer and closer. Even the smallest mistake or disruption can lead to its prey being sucked into the jaws of the lionfish. Bridie Allan, (a marine ecologist from the University of Otago), Dunedin, New Zealand, said this was an excellent example of “how slow but steady wins the race.” She wasn’t involved in the research. She thinks it would be fascinating to see how these relentless chases unfold in the wild, without any spatial restrictions, as there are spatial restrictions in tanks.
If lionfish use this strategy in the wild, and their prey responds similarly, it is possible that they are contributing to the devastating potential of their invasion in the Western Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean. These fish are eating native marine animals and disrupting food chains. Other factors such as the lionfish’s appetite and prolific reproduction rates could have a more significant impact on their invasiveness. Peterson suggests that persistent-predation strategies are not limited to lionfish. Rapacious fish species with slow swimmers, such as straw-shaped trumpet fish, could also benefit from this persistent-predation approach.
Peterson states that prey trying to avoid lionfish or other slow swimmers might have more places to hide in a natural environment. There are also inherent dangers in a noisy, distracting environment. She says, “If you are near coral reefs or up against coral, you can get pinched if you don’t pay attention.” These are the times when hungry slowpokes can potentially have the upper hand.