A recent study of 40 species of marine creatures that live near the North Carolina coast found a definite connection between warm winters and the density of lionfish (Pterois volitans)—a sign that the damaging fish may expand into the region as climate warms.
Lionfish, which only arrived in North Carolina’s waters around the year 2000, are considered a major threat to Atlantic reefs. Since their first sighting off of Florida’s East Coast in the late 1980s, lionfish populations have swelled throughout the western North Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean. The fish has a huge appetite and few to no natural predators (its spines contain neurotoxins), which means it can reduce the populations of native reef fish, leading to decreased reef health.
Scientists believe that colder water temperatures are one of the few environmental factors that control the species’ distribution on a large scale. As more shallow waters warm as a result of climate change, lionfish and other invasive species may expand their range and begin affecting presently untouched ecosystems.