Monitoring the movement of invasive lionfish

Columbia University
New York, New York
DOI: 10.18258/12311
Raised of $1,400 Goal
Funded on 12/28/18
Successfully Funded
  • $1,460
  • 104%
  • Funded
    on 12/28/18

About This Project

We hypothesize that invasive lionfish settle in typical nursery habitats before searching out deeper, colder water. We will use otolith microchemistry to determine the differences between the most recent residency and the settlement location of lionfish individuals throughout Floridian waters.

Understanding their post-settlement behavior may help us control their population, limit future spread of the species, and decrease the negative influence of lionfish on native ecosystems.

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What is the context of this research?

Invasive lionfish first became established in the coastal waters of Florida, near Ft. Lauderdale. Currently, they have invaded coral reefs, mangrove, seagrass beds, and deep coastal water. Unrecognizable to native fishes, they eat whatever prey fits into their mouth. Furthermore, native predators have provide no top-down control on the invaders. They reduce biodiversity and are a threat to our native ecosystems.

Lionfish generally exhibit site fidelity but we lack long term data on lionfish spatial ecology and their settlement preferences. This is why approaching the question with stable isotopes will allow us to examine trends and behavior over a much larger time frame. This study will be the first to do microchemistry analysis on lionfish otoliths.

What is the significance of this project?

It is vital that we manage these lionfish populations as effectively as possible to reduce harmful effects on our fisheries and our ecosystems. Current removal efforts generally focus on spearfishing, but can also include trapping techniques. In many cases, spearfishing hasn't been enough, since some populations live deeper than safe diving limit. So, by learning about lionfish habitat use, we can target source populations or larval settlement habitats to improve current conservation efforts. Reducing the number of individuals that spread from source populations will help limit sink populations.

What are the goals of the project?

The purpose of this research is to determine if lionfish larvae settle in nursery habitats and how they disperse following settlement. I will age each individual fish by counting the otolith rings. Fish lay down layers of material on their otolith much like a tree lays down rings as it ages. For my stable isotope analysis, the juvenile core of the otolith will be sub-sampled using a micro-drill. Following this, a portion of the outer ring of the otolith will be sampled. These sub-samples will be analyzed for the isotopic ratios of O18, an indicator of ocean temperature, and C13, an indicator of different habitats. For each individual, differences between the two time-point sub-samples will indicate if movement away from settlement habitat occured.


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Previous funding from Columbia University and the Earth Institute supported field work during the summer of 2018.

Samples were collected from the Florida Keys, Fort Lauderdale and coastal water near the Everglades. Collection was done through my own catch, the catch of dive shops and local fishermen/women, and through a collaborator from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Funding from this budget is critical for the analysis of the collected samples. It will be used to process otoliths for stable isotopes.

2 Samples per individual otolith

35 Individuals

20$ Per sample

This research is the basis for my M.A thesis at Columbia University which I will be defending this spring.

Update: I added a stretch goal! This will help fund the processing of replicate samples so I can better calculate the precision of the measurements.

Endorsed by

Montana's research offers the potential to gain real insight into one of the most pressing and challenging species invasions we've ever seen. Her analytical technique should provide us data that we can use to help mitigate the impact of lionfish in the Caribbean

Project Timeline

As I process my otoliths, I will update backers on my project through A month will be designated for aging otoliths and another month for the micro-drilling processes. After submitting the samples for analysis, and waiting for results to return in the early spring of 2019, I will begin statistical analysis and the writing of my M.A thesis. In May, I will defend my thesis, begin working on the publication of my research, and share results with

Nov 28, 2018

Project Launched

Nov 30, 2018

Finish aging otoliths

Dec 21, 2018

Finish microdrilling of otolith samples

Feb 15, 2019

Have stable isotope results

Mar 15, 2019

Complete statistical analysis and begin writing thesis

Meet the Team

Montana Airey
Montana Airey


Columbia University
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Montana Airey

As a small girl, I was entranced with the ocean and its mysterious, vast, depths. By the age of 10, I had decided on my career path and have never strayed from it. I attended Boston University as an undergraduate to study Marine Science and Environmental Science. Currently, I attend Columbia University where I am pursuing a M.A in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology and conducting my thesis research on invasive lionfish. I've spent time researching the seabirds of the Gulf of Maine, the coral reefs of Belize, invasive lionfish in Florida, and the tropical ecosystems of Ecuador. When I'm not in the field, or bent over my computer reading scientific papers, I return to my home in Massachusetts where I help manage and conserve a flock of heritage sheep.

Project Backers

  • 16Backers
  • 104%Funded
  • $1,460Total Donations
  • $91.25Average Donation
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