May 25, 2004
Image credit: NOAA
It floats like a butterfly, but stings like a bee -- a BIG bee! And it's
invading the coastal waters of the eastern United States. What is it?
It's the lionfish (Pterois volitans) and it is packing a punch to
the nervous system of anyone unlucky enough to touch it.
Lionfish are native to
the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, not the western Atlantic Ocean. The
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believes that the East
Coast invasion of lionfish started when people dumped their pet lionfish
into the ocean. The lionfish are spreading in their new habitat and have
few natural predators in these waters.
Lionfish distribution (Summer, 2003)
Image credit: NOAA
On May 21, 2004, NOAA issued a warning to divers and fishermen: use extreme caution around lionfish! The lionfish has
spines that can deliver a painful sting. A venom gland is located at the
base of each spine. The venom is a combination of protein, a
neuromuscular toxin and the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. After a spine punctures the skin, the
venom travels up a groove in the lionfish's spine into the wound.
Although the sting is not fatal, it does cause intense pain and swelling
around the wound. The pain is greatest approximately 1 to 1.5 hour after
the injury and usually lasts 6 to 12 hours. Some people have pain or
tingling sensations around the wound for several days or weeks. On rare
occasions when the venom spreads to other parts of the body, people may
experience headaches, cramping, nausea, paralysis, seizures and chills.
The most common treatment for a lionfish sting is to:
- Remove the spine (if it broke off in the skin).
- Place the wound in hot (45oC) water for 30-90 minutes or
until the pain is gone.
- Give a tetanus shot and possibly antibiotics.
Many ocean animals have venoms or poisons that
target the nervous system: the blue ringed octopus, cone snail and pufferfish. Add the lionfish to this list.
LIONFISH: beautiful, but dangerous.
Look, but don't touch!