The lionfish (subfamily Pteroina, family Scorpaenidae) have received much media attention in the last few years because Pterois lions have invaded the tropical waters of the Atlantic. Now there are more lionfish on Caribbean reefs than there are in their natural homes in the Indo-Pacific. Fortunately, the dwarf lionfish or zebra lionfish (Dendrochirus zebra) has yet to be recorded in the Atlantic.
Difficulty: The dwarf lionfish is a more diminutive member of the subfamily (it only reaches 7 inches) and typically adapts to captivity with ease. Like others in the family, the biggest trick is to dupe the dwarf lionfish into taking non-living food items. This can usually be accomplished by taking a strip of fresh or thawed fish flesh and dragging it through the water on the end of a sharpened piece of rigid airline tubing. Move it in front of the dwarf lionfish and try to entice it to snap up the morsel. If you have a more finicky dwarf lionfish, you may have to use feeder fish (not goldfish, but livebearers) or shrimp to ensure your lion gets enough to eat. It is best to gut pack these prey items with a nutritious frozen or flake preparation just before feeding them to the dwarf lionfish. Feed your Dendrochirus zebra at least several times a week.
Physical description: The dwarf lionfish has large, fanlike pectoral fins, long dorsal fin spines (these are venomous) and a slender tentacle over each eye. There are dark brown to red bars on the body and a dark spot on the gill cover.
Range: The dwarf lionfish is known from the east coast of Africa to Samoa in the south Pacific. The dwarf lionfish is a resident of coral reefs, where it can be found in knee-deep water to depths of more than 220 feet. Dendrochirus zebra is often associated with large sponges and often does so in small groups, which typically consist of a single male and several females.
Compatibility: The dwarf lionfish is a fish and crustacean eater (its favorite food in the wild are shrimp). Shrimp (including cleaner shrimp varieties) and small crabs are likely to be eaten sooner or later by this patient hunter. Any fish kept with the dwarf lionfish needs to be too large for it to swallow whole. It is not likely to bother fish that it does not view as potential food. It is possible to keep more than one Dendrochirus zebra (or other lionfish species) in the same aquarium. However, adult male dwarf lionfish have been known to fight. This usually consists of tipping their heads and bodies forward and trying to stick each other with their venomous dorsal spines. This rarely leads to death, but partial blindness can result if one Dendrochirus zebra impales the other in the eye. While the dwarf lionfish may be venomous, large angelfish, triggerfish and pufferfish may pick at their fins, which results in distress and fasting in the dwarf lionfish victim.
Aquarium conditions: An adult dwarf lionfish will do well in an aquarium as small as 30-gallons. Good water quality will need to be maintained, or it may stop feeding. Keep the pH range of 8.1 to 8.4, a specific gravity of 1.019 to 1.025 and a water temperature of 74 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Provide several good places for the dwarf lionfish. The hiding place can be a deep crevice, a cave or an overhang. If it does not feel secure in its new home, a dwarf lionfish may refuse to feed.
Care considerations: The dwarf lionfish is venomous and can cause anyone that is stuck by the venomous fin spines great pain (deaths are not known). Make sure that your dwarf lionfish’s home is not in a location where children can stick their hands in the aquarium. If you are stung by a lionfish, run the wound under hot water or use a hair dryer to heat the area. If you have other symptoms besides localized pain, see a doctor immediately.
Breeding: Dendrochirus zebrahas been known to spawn in the home aquarium. When they spawn (which is usually at the end of the day as light levels diminish) the pair will rise toward the top of the aquarium and release two mucus egg rafts that contain thousands of eggs. The larvae are difficult to raise.