MIAMI - A lionfish with relatives in the Caribbean has been speared off the coast of Brazil, marking the furthest point south ever documented for the invasive species and raising new concerns about its range, scientists said Thursday.
Marked by elaborate orange, brown and black stripes, lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific but were introduced to northwest Atlantic waters in the 1980s, likely when someone along Florida's east coast released their aquarium fish into the ocean, experts say.
Since then, lionfish have spread north as far as Massachusetts in the summer months, and have penetrated deep into the Caribbean, using their venomous spines to scare off bigger predators and eating up countless numbers of young and valuable reef fish.
Described this week in the journal PLOS ONE, this 25-centimeter (nearly 10 inch) adult lionfish, Pterois volitans, off the southeastern coast of Brazil was spotted and killed by divers in May 2014.
Its genetic analysis shows that this was not another aquarium introduction but likely a relative of the invasive fish that have made their home in the Caribbean.
"Our finding at Arraial do Cabo, a subtropical reef about 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) away from the Caribbean, is surprising," said the study led by Luiz Rocha, curator of ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences, along with experts at the Brazilian National Research Agency.
"The DNA sequences from the Brazilian lionfish matched the Caribbean individuals of Pterois volitans," it added.
"It is our opinion that the lionfish recorded here arrived in Brazil via natural larval dispersal from the Caribbean." Not only can lionfish withstand long periods of starvation as well as eat their prey into extinction, they can also spread far and wide, explained Elizabeth Underwood, lionfish programme coordinator at the Florida-based non-profit group REEF, which was notified of the Brazil lionfish sighting in May.
"When they reproduce, they release the eggs and sperm into the water column and they can actually float vast distances, which is why this invasion spread as quickly as it did and as far as it did," she told AFP.
"It is pretty concerning," added Underwood.
"It is really important to get some control programs in place over there, and also just some programs where divers are going out and looking for lionfish."
While no other reports off Brazil have been made since, Rocha said it is urgent for Brazil to take action because its smaller populations of reef fish are particularly vulnerable to extinction.
"Brazil has a lot of fish that are unique and found only in small areas, we call them 'small range endemics,'" Rocha said in an email to AFP.
"All of the Brazilian oceanic islands have one or more of those endemics, and the islands are very small. So if (or should I say when) lionfish get there it will be a bigger problem."
Humans are the main predators of lionfish, which can be caught by divers with spears, or in spiny lobster traps.
They rarely eat bait off fishing lines.
Lionfish are edible, and when cooked, their meat is white, flaky and sweet.