Turkeyfish or lionfish? Different name, same critter

Hawaiian Turkeyfish (Pterois sphex)Several days ago I put up a couple of photos of a Hawaiian Turkeyfish -- as a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to American Thanksgiving. 'Turkeyfish' is a common name for this fish -- but it is not the common name. In some circles, the same creature is called a 'Lionfish.'

Some of the readers who commented on the previous post seemed to know this, and found my Turkeyfish label to be a bit confusing. Unfortunately that is one of the problems with identifying things in nature by their common names: the names are not standardized. That is why I always include the scientific name (when I know it!) as well as the common name for the marine life in the photos I post on The Right Blue. Scientific names do not vary.

The angle of the photo on this page might give a little better clue as to why this fish might have earned either of its common names. It has this habit of spreading its spiny fins when it is disturbed, a display that must have reminded someone either of a turkey's tail, or a lion's mane. That seems to be the origin of both common names for this fish and its kin.

The scientific name for this fish is Pterois sphex. It belongs to the Scorpionfish family (Scorpaenidae). A characteristic shared by the fish in this family is that they possess venomous spines. This is their defense against being gobbled up by larger predators.

This particular species is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. In other words, it is native to Hawaii, and it is not found elsewhere naturally. There are other fish of the genus Pterois elsewhere in the world. They all look quite similar, but close examination will reveal some clear distinctions among the species.

These other fish in the genus Pterois also are referred to as Turkeyfish or Lionfish, depending on geographical location and who's doing the talking or writing. At least one leading ichthyologist (fish biologist) prefers to apply the name Turkeyfish to the genus Pterois, and the name Lionfish to a different Scorpionfish genus, but most people seem to use the two common names almost interchangeably.

Some people who commented on the previous post mentioned that they thought they had seen this fish in a saltwater aquarium, presumably away from Hawaii. They may indeed have seen this species, or they may have seen one of its similar-looking cousins -- one of the other fish of the same genus that I mentioned above.

I don't know a whole lot about the fine points of the aquarium trade, but I do know that Turkeyfish/Lionfish are valued as "ornamental fish" and are collected for sale to aquarists. In fact, the population of these fish on our coasts has been depleted noticeably over the years as commercial fish collectors scooped them up in large numbers to sell.

The individual fish in the photo on this page (and in the previous post) has lived in the same small patch for years, along with a handful more of the same species. These fish do not have a very wide range, so once a diver discovers where they live, they can reliably be found in more or less the same spot day after day, and -- with luck -- year after year.

We know this to be true in more than a theoretical sense. Along with our friend Dan, we dived the same stretch of coastline at Puako, Hawaii several days a week for years, and we came to know where all of the permanent residents lived. We know precisely where these Turkeyfish/Lionfish live -- but we're not telling.


  1. What an interesting fish! Thanks for all that info!

  2. Gobble, gobble, or roar. Pretty specimen.

  3. Hi Mon@rch & Mikster -

    Thanks for visiting again. We're glad you like our turkeyfish -- er, lionfish -- erm, the one with the stripes and the pointy bits. :-D

    Bobbie & Jerry


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Bobbie & Jerry