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Related FAQs: Dwarf Lionfishes, Dwarf Lions 2, & by Species: Fu Man Chu Lions (D. biocellatus), Fuzzy Lions (D. brachypterus), Green Lions (D. barberi), Hawaiian Lions (Pterois sphex), Zebra Lions (D. zebra), & Dwarf Lion Identification, Dwarf Lion Behavior, Dwarf Lion Compatibility, Dwarf Lion Selection, Dwarf Lion Systems, Dwarf Lion Feeding, Dwarf Lion Disease, Dwarf Lion Reproduction, Lionfishes & their Relatives, Lions 2, Lions 3Lions 4Lionfish Identification, Lionfish Selection, Lionfish Compatibility, Lionfish Systems, Lionfish Behavior, Lionfish Feeding, Lionfish Feeding 2, Lionfish DiseaseLionfish Disease 2, Lion Disease 3, Lionfish Reproduction, Freshwater "Lionfishes"

Related Articles: Lionfish & Their Relatives, Keeping Lionfishes and their Scorpaeniform Kin Part 1, Part 2, by Anthony Calfo and Robert Fenner, The Mystery of the Atlantic Pterois Lionfishes, by Anthony Calfo, Rockfishes and Kin (family Scorpaenidae), Subfamily Scorpaeninae (Rock and Scorpionfishes), Subfamily Choridactylinae (Inimicinae),, Subfamily Synanceinae, the Stonefishes, Subfamily Tetraroginae, Sailback Scorpionfishes or Wasp Fishes, Family Triglidae, the Searobins or Gurnards, Wound Management

/A Diversity of Aquatic Life

The Dwarf Lions, Mainly the Genus Dendrochirus

By Bob Fenner

Dendrochirus zebra

Scorpionfishes: Lionfishes & Much More for Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care

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by Robert (Bob) Fenner

    Seemingly, a "good thing in small/er packages", the Dwarf or smaller Lionfishes (same subfamily, Pteroinae as their larger kin) are not as likely to swallow small fish and non-fish tankmates... But beware, their "gulp" is larger than it may seem... and many fishes and invertebrates are inhaled daily by these diminutive Scorpionfishes. Another caveat is size bears little relation to sting... Like small rattlesnakes, small lionfish species are just as venomous as their larger brethren... Watch where you put your hands when in their tanks.

Dwarf' Lionfishes on Parade!

     The dwarf lions are principally four of the five members of the genera Dendrochirus ("Den-droh-kear-us), though at least one of the smaller Pterois are labeled as such for their smaller size and more sedentary, bottom-dwelling habits.

Dendrochirus barberi (Steindachner 1900), the Green (to the dive interest) or Hawaiian Lionfish. Eastern Central Pacific; Hawai'i and Johnston Atoll. Found in 1-50 meters of water, generally on coral or resting in rocky recesses. To about six inches total length. Very venomous to the touch. Here off of Kona.

Dendrochirus bellus (Jordan & Hubbs 1925), a Dwarf Lion from N.W. Pacific, Japan and Taiwan. Never seen in the trade. To six inches (15 cm.) in length.

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Dendrochirus biocellatus (Fowler 1928), the Two/Twin-Spot, Roo or Fu Man Chu Lion is unmistakable with it's two eye spots on the rear dorsal fin area, and two whisker-like appendages extending from the lower jaw. To almost five inches in length. A wide-spread species found throughout the tropical Indian Ocean to the western Pacific, Mascarenes to Micronesia. Aquarium images.

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Dendrochirus brachypterus ("Brack-hip-tur-us") (Cuvier 1829), The Shortfin Dwarf Lion is a rarer, more heavy bodied dwarf, often showing up with a good deal of yellow, brown and green mixed with red markings. Brach dwarfs are aptly named in reference to their very large pectoral fins with almost no emerging ray tips. This is one of the most personable marine species, quickly getting to recognize and respond to it's owners presence. Indo-West Pacific; East Africa, Red Sea to southern Japan, Australia, Micronesia. Here in the Red Sea and Mabul, Malaysia.

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Dendrochirus zebra (Cuvier 1829), the Zebra Turkeyfish, is the most common dwarf lion is similar in many ways and degrees to P. antennata and P. sphex. The one sure distinguishing mark of D. zebra is the presence of two white spheres on it's caudal peduncle. To ten inches in length in the wild. Indo-West Pacific; Red Sea, East Africa, to Southern Japan, Australia. Shown: an individual and "tree" of individuals in captivity.

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A Smallish Pterois Lionfish Species:

    There are a few "True" lions that could be considered "Dwarves", but definitely the Hawaiian endemic is to be counted as such:

Pterois sphex Jordan & Evermann 1903, the endemic Hawaiian ("Dwarf") Lion; often mistakenly sold as Antennata lions which they closely resemble in terms of pectoral finnage. Sphex lion fins are shorter, less colorful and more clubbed in appearance. Though more costly than the majority of lions which are imported from the Philippines and Indonesia, Hawaiian lions are my favorite for hardiness. To eight inches.


    For the most part Lionfishes are easily captured (they don't swim quickly, are easily found in the wild), but they do take a beating in transit, holding, transit... on their way to your dealers. For girthy fishes with sizable appetites they are rather sensitive to ammonia poisoning and low oxygen concentration... Hence:

1) Don't buy newly arrived specimens... Let the poor fish rest up from being collected (all are wild-captured) for a few days to a week. Most all "anomalous losses" of these fishes occurs within a few days of collection and transport.

2). Don't purchase "spaced out" individuals. Healthy specimens are bright-eyed, alert, aware of your presence, not cowering in the corner or with cloudy eyes.

3) Avoid specimens with red markings or open sores. Torn fins are fine and will mend... they get broken in collection, being shipped in poor quality water, and the food-less interval of days to weeks before your shop's acquiring them... But look out for bad scrapes, and infected lateral lines. Look particularly at the fin insertion areas of the body for tears, evidence of bleeding. Most damaged individuals will heal, but it's best that they not be moved about when they are so impugned.

4) Hold off on purchasing fishes that don't eat at your dealers. This "old saw" is a valid yes/no decision maker for purchasing lions. A healthy lionfish will always show interest... at least awareness of potential food items in its vicinity. If one that you have your eye on won't take food in front of you, put it on "layaway" with a deposit and come back for it... feeding, at a later date.


    "Oh, they mainly just sit around, so we don't need to put the small Lionfishes in large tanks, provide that much filtration, aeration, circulation." Wrong. Though they are quite sedentary, dwarf Lionfishes are "messy" fishes in terms of foods, wastes... and good sized/weight in small packages as well. I like a friend, co WWM Crew member James Gasta's  rule of thumb for marine stocking... of "One cubic inch of life per five gallons of water"... given this measure instead of length per so many gallons you can see that bulky lionfish species need room. I would not put one of these fishes in less than a forty gallon system.

    Filtration likewise needs to be upgraded, allowing for both the steady secretion of ammonia from the fish's gills and the periodic expulsion of solid and liquid wastes. Similarly, their water needs to be maintained in a highly oxygenated state, with vigorous circulation.

    Though not talked about often, likely vying with "gut blockage" from mis-feeding as a common cause of death, Lionfishes, being big eaters, mess-makers are often challenged by iatrogenic changes in their water chemistry... That is, they can and do modify the water they're in to at times, disastrous degrees. Alkalinity and pH in particular often slide with systems housing Lionfishes... Even given a decent volume of water, plenty of calcareous substrate and rock in their tank, without regular partial water changes, your aquarium can have a precipitous slide in buffering capacity... Do keep an eye on your pH and dKH.

    Lastly a stock mention of lighting and scorpaenid (mail-cheeked) fishes. They are susceptible to a blinding syndrome as a consequence of being placed in too-bright settings, lacking caves, overhangs to get out of the bright light. If you detect cloudiness on your lion's eyes, I'd check and rectify pH if this has slid, but next look to providing shade or moving this fish from an overlit tank. Do provide sufficient cover, caves, overhangs for your dwarf lion/s to hang out (upside down or right-side up). This is what they do in the wild during the day.


    There are two basic rules to matching livestock with dwarf lions... Nothing small enough to fit in their capacious mouths... and secondly, nothing that will harass them. The first category must need include motile invertebrates... small crabs, hermits, shrimps... all can be inhaled... and may be, as well as any fish small enough to fit. Note that we didn't mention slow or unaware fishes... eventually all fishes "sleep" or cruise about too-oblivious. Larger basses, eels, triggers, puffers, big angels and some other miscellaneous fishes may pick on your small lion... to its demise.

    Unlike the case with some of the Pterois species, dwarf lions rarely (but can) show intra-specific aggression, and are in fact, often encountered in loosely associated groups in the wild. More than one species, specimen may be housed in the same system, given adequate space, food...


    Small lionfish species enjoy chunky, meaty foods, and in the wild this means live... In captivity, they can almost always be trained to accept cut meat, freeze-dried, frozen/defrosted items... but this may take some doing, including periods/bouts of starvation on their part. Be aware that these fishes can indeed go without food for a few to several weeks... and don't give in to the foolhardy practice of feeding them "freshwater feeders"... comet goldfish, livebearers, Rosies... are poor nutrition, expensive, inconvenient... and the hands-down number one killer of these fishes... from either fatty degeneration internally over time, or outright "gut blockage."

    If your lion is on an absolute, getting-too-thin starvation, a live glass, ghost shrimp will likely be very readily accepted. Otherwise, do devise a "feeding stick" (wood or plastic) that you can attach non-live food items to and practice waving these meaty foods (silversides, lancefish, shrimp... whole or pieces) offerings in front of your lions face... toward the evening (most are crepuscular to nocturnal ambush predators)... In time you will have a fine aqua-pet.

    How often should they be fed? Twice a week is about right... and never to satiation... You don't want to make the lion look or feel like a living balloon.


    Though far more Lionfishes, small and large species, are killed from mis-feeding (largely feeder goldfish) and self-caused pollution from being in too-small aquariums, they are susceptible to the "usual" reef fish maladies, particularly Cryptocaryon and Amyloodinium in the way of pathogenic diseases. Being sensitive to variable water quality also includes an aversion to typical medicants... ones containing copper compounds, formalin and dyes like Malachite Green should be administered in the lowest possible physiological dose... And even then, the animals watched closely for signs of over-treatment, with new water ready to change out. Often, protozoan and dinoflagellate diseases can be eradicated with a simple pH-adjusted freshwater and half-dose formalin dip/bath enroute to a treatment/quarantine tank... allowing the main/display tank to "go fallow" for a month, the parasites to die off or lose pathogenicity.

    A note to dealers re these fishes. Often an extended bath or full-treatment (250 mg/10 gal.s) of Nitrofurazone can result in miraculous "reincarnation" of badly beat-up fin-tattered specimens that arrive to you in very poor condition.


    Lionfishes, including dwarf species have spawned in captivity, particularly D. brachypterus. They do so in the wild in a haremic condition, with one male and a few females. In breeding condition females swell with eggs. Spawning occurs in the by dark of night, the sticky egg-mass floats toward the surface and a day and a half later sees the gelatinous mass dissolving the developing fry taking food.


    Dwarf Lionfish species are really only different from their larger, related (same subfamily Pteroinae) kin... by size mainly, and a propensity to "sit on the bottom" more. The smaller lionfish species require the same good sized, well filtered and aerated systems as the bigger ones... Can be similarly trained to non-live foods and killed by the same inappropriate live freshwater ones, and are susceptible to the same pathogens and treatments for the same.

    As with the larger "true" Lionfishes, one must be cautious when having their hands in these fishes tanks... as, whether they're alive or not, all lionfish species are painfully venomous. Keep your eye on these fishes when working in their tanks.


Bibliography/Further Reading:

Emmens, C. W. 1983. Spotlight: Lionfishes. TFH 4/83.

Fenner, Robert. 1993. An Argument Against "Feeder" Goldfish. FAMA 11/93.

Kurtz, Jeffrey. 2000. Those "lesser" lions. TFH 9/00.

Michael, Scott. 1996. Lionfishes- the kings of the reef. AFM 3/96.

Modlin, Jon R. 1982. The Lion Tree. FAMA 3/82.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World, 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons, the World.

Parker, Nancy J. 1977. Hawaiian Lion. Marine Aquarist 7:8/77.

Romaine, Deborah S. 1978. The Lionfish: Mr. Personality. TFH 5/78.

Wittenrich, Matthew. 1998. Lionfish: An overview. SeaScope V.15, Summer 98.

Scorpionfishes: Lionfishes & Much More for Marine Aquariums
Diversity, Selection & Care

New eBook on Amazon: Available here
New Print Book on Create Space: Available here

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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