Pterois sphexHawaiian lionfish(Also: Turkeyfish)

Geographic Range

Hawaiian turkeyfish, Pterois sphex, can only be found in the northwest and eastern central parts of the Pacific Ocean. They are restricted to the waters immediately surrounding the archipelago of the Hawaiian Islands in the trade wind belt. (Gosline, 1965; Motomura and Matsuura, 2016)


Hawaiian turkeyfish are endemic Hawaiian reef fish. They are more commonly found in caves and beneath ledges during the day, becoming more active in the reef at night. Hawaiian turkeyfish are benthic, epipelagic fish, meaning they reside in less than 200m of water and stay fairly close to shore. They can be found in anywhere from 3-124m of water. (Gosline, 1965; Langston and Spalding, 2010; Motomura and Matsuura, 2016)

  • Range depth
    124 to 3 m
    406.82 to 9.84 ft

Physical Description

Hawaiian turkeyfish present many of the typical features of the genus Pterois, including venomous glands located in the dorsal, anal and pelvic fins, villiform teeth, and boney plates protruding beneath the eyes. Hawaiian turkeyfish are a rusty pink and white color with jagged bright white and brown stripes running vertically along their bodies. The nonvenomous pectoral fins of Hawaiian turkeyfish are membrane-bound proximally but become branched distally. Their dorsal spines can be as long as their body's length and are unbound by a membrane, allowing them to sway with the current. They have 50 to 55 ctenoid vertical rows of scales. They are one of the smaller species of Pterois, with their length ranging from 4.06cm to 11.17cm.

As Hawaiian turkeyfish mature, more striping appears on the pectoral and pelvic fins, their once few coronal spines multiply, and their black banded supraocular tentacles often disappear. In terms of patterns and weight, sexes are alike. (Bell, et al., 1978; "Fishery management plan for coral reef ecosystems of the Western Pacific Region: Environmental impact statement", 2001; "Marine fishes-cryptic reef fishes", 2005; Motomura and Matsuura, 2016; Naranji, et al., 2016)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range length
    4.06 to 11.17 cm
    1.60 to 4.40 in


There are no reported life cycle progressions for Hawaiian turkeyfish. However, the embryology of a closely related species, red lionfish Pterois volitans, is known. Development inside the egg begins 12 hours after fertilization and the larvae hatch out within an additional 24 hours. The larvae begin skillfully swimming and consuming ciliates and small zooplankton in 2-3 days. The typical larval stage is predicted to last between 20 and 40 days for the majority of species of Pterois. It has been reported for another closely related species, devil firefish Pterois miles, that once the larvae reach a length of 10-12 mm they undergo metamorphosis into adult fish. Although indeterminate growth for Hawaiian turkeyfish has not been reported, it is most often true for fish in general and has been reported for the red lionfish. The indeterminate growth rate of red lionfish is dependent on the number of other lionfish on the same coral reef. (Fishelson, 1975; Kirkpatrick, 1984; Whitfield, et al., 2002)


There is currently no research on reproduction for Hawaiian turkeyfish, but they are thought use very similar mechanisms as other species of the genus Pterois.

Female red lionfish, Pterois volitans, and female devil firefish, Pterois miles, spawn every 3 to 4 days year round. Although there is not a "breeding season" for lionfish, more females reach the point of maturity during the summer, consequentially increasing the number of larvae being spawned. The males, on the other hand, show no significant difference in mating ability throughout the year.

Lionfish generally use their venomous spines for defense, but during mating season males may use them to ward off other males. Fishelson (1975) observed in times of breeding that males will defend their female mate first through visual intimidation, expanding their spines to give a larger appearance. They may also attempt to bite and vigorously shake other males. If this attack is attempted, but an invading male reacts quickly by shifting their body, both fish may collide and be stabbed by each others spines.

Red lionfish have subtle differences in morphology between sexes until they begin attracting a mate. Males become slightly darker in color and females become much less vibrant in color. Females bellies become swollen as the eggs in their ovaries become mature. Females also display a second change in appearance, an off white-silver color appears around their mouths and runs across to their mandible bone. This allows males to find females that are ready to mate more easily in dark waters.

For red lionfish, once a male has found a female to mate with, he courts her through a variety of visual and tactile behaviors, such as swimming around the female, quickly darting toward the surface, and then back to the female. Once in agreement of mating, both the male and female use variations of trembling their fins to accept each other before rising to the surface to mate. The female then releases her egg sack and the eggs are externally fertilized. The female then returns to the floor of the ocean to rest, and the male departs on to find another mate and repeat the series of events and the female will find a new mate in 3-4 days, making this species polygynandrous. (Albins and Hixon, 2008; Fishelson, 1975; Gardner, et al., 2015; Whitfield, et al., 2002)

Currently, no studies exist that report the general reproductive behavior of Hawaiian turkeyfish. However, others in the genus have been well-studied. In captivity, female red lionfish (Pterois volitans) can produce 200,000 to 400,000 eggs in their lifetime. Depending on the size of the fish, females can spawn from 2,000 to 15,000 eggs every 3-4 days year-round, making them a broadcasting species. Although these fish do not breed seasonally, more females reach maturity during the summer months, increasing the number of eggs produced. While females spawn once every couple of days, males remain active daily, fertilizing multiple egg sacs even in one night. Each of these egg sacs will begin hatching in approximately 36 hours. (Fishelson, 1975; Gardner, et al., 2015)

  • Average time to independence
    0 minutes

Hawaiian turkeyfish exhibit no parental investment beyond the act of spawning. (Fishelson, 1975; Gardner, et al., 2015)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement


There is no definite lifespan reported for Hawaiian turkeyfish, although it is estimated that it is about two years. The lifespan of a similar species, red lionfish (Pterois volitans), is known to be ten years. (Carey and Judge, 2002; Siwanowicz, 2009)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    2 years


Although there have been reports of activity during the day, Hawaiian turkeyfish are almost exclusively active at night. These fish usually live in solitary and can be found sedentary in caves and beneath ledges, sometimes upside down. Upon being approached by either other marine animals or divers, Hawaiian turkeyfish have almost no reaction and remain still and seemingly unbothered.

At dusk, Hawaiian turkeyfish become more active, meaning these fish are crepuscular and nocturnal. These nocturnal fish hunt and mate during these hours. Prior to feeding, Hawiian turkeyfish often move their dorsal fins in such a way that a sine ripple can be seen moving distally from the base of the fin towards the end. To find prey, these fish scan the ocean floor fanning their wing-like fins to reveal marine animals. Once they have disturbed their sleeping victim, they consume the fish/crustacean in a single gulp.

In defense against predation and in social hierarchy establishment, Hawaiian turkeyfish use dorsal fin erection to fully display their venomous spines and increase their size for intimidation. This also ensures that any predator will be stung and injured severely if the fish is swallowed. (Gardner, et al., 2015; Kochzius, et al., 2003; Shallenberger and Madden, 1973; Ziegler, 2002)

Home Range

There is no reported home range for this species, and they are not known to actively defend set territories. However, Hawaiian turkeyfish can be aggressive in encounters with other fish in the same genus. (Shallenberger and Madden, 1973)

Communication and Perception

Hawaiian turkeyfish are mostly solitary animals, only interacting during mating and hunting. Various species of Pterois will actually hunt together. One of the fish will lead the attack by a small movement with one of its pectoral fins. Once its fins has been lifted, the both fish will attack the prey mostly by biting. Red lionfish (Pterois volitans) have been observed creating "water jets" by spewing water from their mouths as they slowly approach their prey. This technique confuses the prey, often leaving them stunned. Red lionfish then proceed to consume their victim with one gulp.

By erecting their dorsal fin, Hawaiian turkeyfish give the illusion of increased size to ward off predators and to establish dominance over smaller fish. Their erect spines can also stun predators as they try to swallow Hawaiian turkeyfish. (Lönnstedt, et al., 2014; Albins and Lyons, 2012; Lönnstedt, et al., 2014; Shallenberger and Madden, 1973)

Food Habits

Hawaiian turkeyfish are piscivores, preying on juvenile fish and crustaceans. Because these fish are nocturnal, and most of their prey are not, they use their wing-like fins to stir around sand on the ocean floor and reveal their prey. (Thomas and Scott, 1997)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • aquatic crustaceans


Hawaiian turkeyfish have many unique qualities to deter predators. During the day they remain in caves, mostly avoiding open waters, which keeps them hidden from potential predators. Their calm and slow moving demeanor allows them to remain inconspicuous to many surrounding animals. The asymmetrical stripes and blotches of color on their bodies allow them to blend in with the jagged, coral and polyp covered rocks in caves. Ultimately, their best and most dangerous line of defense is their venomous spines protruding from nearly all of their fins. Hawaiian turkeyfish can be considered aposematic, but not in terms of color; instead, individuals display their spines as warning to those that wish to consume them.

There are no reported predators of Hawaiian turkeyfish, except for humans Homo sapiens. Humans often collect these ornate fish for the aquarium trade. (Albins and Hixon, 2008; Barker, 2015; Davis and Davis, 2006; Fishelson, 2006; "National invasive lionfish prevention and management plan", 2015; Thomas and Scott, 1997)

Ecosystem Roles

Hawaiian turkeyfish have one reported parasite. A trematode, Prohcithochirium pterois, is a newly-discovered parasite, only found in the stomachs of Hawaiian turkeyfish.

Hawaiian turkeyfish are predators of juvenile fish and crustaceans. In Hawaii, their diet does not largely affect the ecosystem around them.

The nature of which Hawaiian turkeyfish hunt also allows for the sediment aeration. As they skim the bottom of the ocean floor, they fan their appendages to stir up substrate, revealing crustaceans they may be hiding here. (Morris and Akins, 2009; Thomas and Scott, 1997; Yamaguti, 1970)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Trematode (Prohcithochirium pterois)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Ornamental fish, such as Hawaiian turkeyfish, are highly sought after to sell in the commercial aquarium market. It is reported that between the years of 1967 to 2003, 3,680 fish were collected for the trade, resulting in economic gains of $13,459. These fish are also bred in captivity to decrease the cost of collection. While their collection rate is monitored by the Hawaiian government, it is thought that not all collections are actually reported, indicating that more fish are collected than are allowed. ("Marine fishes-cryptic reef fishes", 2005; Tissot and Hallacher, 2003)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Humans can be stuck by the spines of Hawaiian turkeyfish while diving recreationally, snorkeling, and fishing as well as during their collection for aquarium trade. The venom in their spines causes severe pain and inflammation, and stings from other species of the genus Pterois can cause death in humans. ("National invasive lionfish prevention and management plan", 2015; Thomas and Scott, 1997)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans

Conservation Status

The Hawaiian turkeyfish is currently ranked as a species of "Least Concern" on the IUCN Red List. They have no special status on CITES, the US Federal List and the State of Michigan List.

Despite the lack of concern for the conservation nationally of Hawaiian turkeyfish, research in Hawaii suggests that numbers of Hawaiian turkeyfish are declining due to increased attraction in the aquarium trade market. In the past, the sale of endemic species from Hawaii in aquarium trade has been kept low due to the high cost of collection in this remote area. Currently there are laws protecting coral reef species found in the Hawaiian Archipelago, stating that thirty percent of Hawaii's coastline is restricted from any type of aquarium collection. In contrast, recent increased sales of endemic Hawaiian fish, such as masked angelfish, Genicanthus personatus, has lead to the increased need for protection of the other species of the same status, such as Hawaiian turkeyfish. Populations of animals that are endemic to a small region can be decimated more quickly than non-endemic species simply due to the fact that their normal population size is not very large. (Motomura and Matsuura, 2016; Pukui and Elbert, 1986; Tissot and Hallacher, 2003)


Carlie Perry (author), Radford University, Layne DiBuono (editor), Radford University, Lindsey Lee (editor), Radford University, Kioshi Lettsome (editor), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map


having coloration that serves a protective function for the animal, usually used to refer to animals with colors that warn predators of their toxicity. For example: animals with bright red or yellow coloration are often toxic or distasteful.


Referring to an animal that lives on or near the bottom of a body of water. Also an aquatic biome consisting of the ocean bottom below the pelagic and coastal zones. Bottom habitats in the very deepest oceans (below 9000 m) are sometimes referred to as the abyssal zone. see also oceanic vent.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


active at dawn and dusk


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body


union of egg and spermatozoan

indeterminate growth

Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


an animal that mainly eats fish

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


an animal which has an organ capable of injecting a poisonous substance into a wound (for example, scorpions, jellyfish, and rattlesnakes).


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


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