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Lionfish and Stonefish Envenomation

  • Author: Scott A Gallagher, MD, FACEP; Chief Editor: Joe Alcock, MD, MS  more...
 
Updated: Oct 29, 2015
 

Background

The family Scorpaenidae represents a large array of fish characterized by the ability to envenomate with various types of specialized spines. This group of fish is responsible for the second most common piscine envenomation, after stingrays.

Unfortunately, this family of fish has a confusing variety of common names, which tends to hinder accurate field identification, classification, and understanding of envenomation. It is helpful to consider the Scorpaenidae family as 3 distinct groups, based upon their venom organ structure and toxicity.

These 3 groups and their representative genera include the following (see the images below):

  • Pterois - Long, slender spines with small venom glands and a less potent sting (eg, lionfish, zebrafish, butterfly cod)
    Lionfish (Pterois volitans) have long, slender spiLionfish (Pterois volitans) have long, slender spines with small venom glands, and they have the least potent sting of the Scorpaenidae family. Courtesy Dee Scarr.
  • Scorpaena - Shorter and thicker spines with larger venom glands and a more potent sting (eg, scorpionfish, bullrout, sculpin)
    Scorpionfish (genus Scorpaena) have shorter, thickScorpionfish (genus Scorpaena) have shorter, thicker spines with larger venom glands than lionfish do, and they have a more potent sting. Courtesy Dee Scarr.
  • Synanceia - Stout, powerful spines with highly developed venom glands and a potentially fatal sting (eg, stonefish)
    Stonefish (genus Synanceia) have short, stout spinStonefish (genus Synanceia) have short, stout spines with highly developed venom glands, and they have a potentially fatal sting. Courtesy Paul S. Auerbach, MD.

Injury and envenomation are reported in the natural environment (eg, accidental exposure to waders, divers, fishermen), as well as in the home setting (eg, handling by unwary marine aquarists).

See Deadly Sea Envenomations, a Critical Images slideshow, to help make an accurate diagnosis.

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Pathophysiology

Common to the family Scorpaenidae are 12-13 dorsal spines, 2 pelvic spines, and 3 anal spines. Each spine is associated with a pair of venom glands. A loose integumentary sheath covers each spine. The sheath is pushed down the spine during envenomation, causing compression of the venom glands located at the base of the spines. Venom then travels from the glands through anterolateral depressions in the spines and into the wound, in a manner analogous to that of a stingray envenomation. The pectoral spines, while often ornate and plumelike, are innocuous. The venom toxicity is due to antigenic, heat-labile proteins of high molecular weight. Treatment is based on the proposed heat-labile characteristics of these proteins.

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Epidemiology

United States

The true number of Scorpaenidae envenomations is unknown. However, there are more than 100 reported cases of captive lionfish (genus Pterois) envenomations in the medical literature, nearly all of which occur on the hands of unwary marine aquarists. Reports from coastal locales commonly involve fisherman, divers, and other water enthusiasts who inadvertently may step on or carelessly handle members of the Scorpaenidae family.

International

This large family is widespread throughout the tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions. Some species are even found in polar regions. No accurate estimates regarding the international frequency of Scorpaenidae envenomations are available; however, they are not uncommon. While the tropical seas contain the majority of species, the temperate waters of the Indo-Pacific, India, South Africa, Australia, Philippines, China, Japan, and the United States are home to many venomous Scorpaenidae.

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

Scott A Gallagher, MD, FACEP Department of Emergency Medicine, Aspen Valley Hospital; Senior Clinical Instructor, Department of Surgery, School of Medicine, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center

Scott A Gallagher, MD, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

John T VanDeVoort, PharmD Regional Director of Pharmacy, Sacred Heart and St Joseph's Hospitals

John T VanDeVoort, PharmD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Health-System Pharmacists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

James Steven Walker, DO, MS Clinical Professor of Surgery, Department of Surgery, University of Oklahoma College of Medicine

James Steven Walker, DO, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians, American Osteopathic Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Joe Alcock, MD, MS Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center

Joe Alcock, MD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Robert L Norris, MD Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Stanford University Medical Center

Robert L Norris, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, International Society of Toxinology, American Medical Association, California Medical Association, Wilderness Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

References
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Lionfish (Pterois volitans) have long, slender spines with small venom glands, and they have the least potent sting of the Scorpaenidae family. Courtesy Dee Scarr.
Scorpionfish (genus Scorpaena) have shorter, thicker spines with larger venom glands than lionfish do, and they have a more potent sting. Courtesy Dee Scarr.
Stonefish (genus Synanceia) have short, stout spines with highly developed venom glands, and they have a potentially fatal sting. Courtesy Paul S. Auerbach, MD.
Members of the genera Scorpaena, such as these scorpionfish, and Synanceia, such as the stonefish, usually are found well camouflaged on the sandy bottom of the sea or amongst rocks. Shoes or booties may provide some protection; however, it is best to avoid touching the sea bottom or to use a shuffling gait while wading. Courtesy Dee Scarr.
Members of the genus Pterois, such as this lionfish, are usually free-swimming or hovering in small caves or crevices for protection. Provoking these fish by handling or cornering them may result in a painful envenomation. Courtesy Dee Scarr.
In defense of the animals, envenomations and injury generally occur in response to a perceived threat, usually handling or stepping on the animals. Photo by Scott A Gallagher, MD.
A 45-year-old diver was taking photographs in Australia at a depth of 60 feet. He suddenly noticed an excruciating pain in his left foot after resting his foot on a large stonefish. Photo courtesy John Williamson, MD and Surf Lifesaving Queensland.
Top, Brown rockfish of the Scorpaenidae family. Lateral view of the left pelvic spine in articulation with the pelvic girdle. Middle, Anterior view of left pelvic spine (proximal portion) of the brown rockfish. Bottom, Lionfish spine.
 
 
 
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