This “fuzzy” dwarf lionfish tends to spend more time in the open, making them a great choice for aquarists with smaller 55 gallon tanks.  

The Shortfin Lionfish is a dwarfed version of larger lionfish, yet they still have a large mouth, beautiful fins, and venomous spines.  Their color variations are purplish brown, yellow, red, reddish yellow and the most commonly seen color, brown.  The stripes on the fins are highly contrasting, yet the body’s vertical bars, which are a dark and lighter version of the overall color, are more subtle.  The exception is the yellow variation which only has bright yellow on the fins and the body is pinkish to red with vertical darker bands of the pinkish red coloring.   Their scales have an almost fuzzy appearance to them and their fins are quite a bit shorter than their large cousins.  For example, their middle dorsal fin is only 1.7’,” which is much shorter than the depth of their body which is 2.6.”  Some fins may have dark spots within the stripes.  Females have smaller heads and shorter pectoral fins, reaching only to the base of the caudal peduncle area.  They also have those “chin whiskers” that the larger lionfish have.  The Shortfin Lionfish grows up to 6.7” (17 cm), may live the typical 10 years of other lionfish, and is best left to the intermediate aquarist. 

Lionfish are in the Scorpaenidae family, and by looking at that name, one can imagine the word “scorpion,” giving away the fact that they are indeed venomous.  While there are a few horror stories of Lionfish killing people, it is rare, in fact so far what kills people is not the sting but the secondary infection that was not cared for.   Within this family, Lionfish have the weakest amount of venom, with Stonefish (Synanceia sp.) being the fish with the very potent and more dangerous venom which very well can kill a person.  While cleaning the tank or arranging rock or corals, the aquarist’s hand is a perceived threat.  The Shortfin Lionfish will direct their venomous spines in the direction of any threat.  Be aware that if you let your hand or arm drift over where the lionfish is hiding out, they can easily arch their back and sting, even though it seems you are far enough away!  Even if they seem like they are backing away from your hand or arm, they are just usually just trying to get a “running start” to lance you!  They wag their dorsal fin back and forth as they approach prey, so by the time the prey figures out what is going on, they have been cornered and, “the rest is history!”

The Shortfin Lionfish is moderately difficult to care for, due to their need for smaller live foods, especially in the beginning.  They eat 11 small prey items a day instead of the typical 4 of large lionfish.  Shrimp and crabs from saltwater sources would be best and the most healthy.  Even if one wears rubber gloves, lionfish spines will still stab right through them!   If you are stung, quickly soak the affected area in very hot, (110 to 113˚F) though not scalding water for 30 to 40 minutes or the pain subsides.  If there isn’t any hot water available, a hair dryer set on high for the same time will work.  The heat of the water or hair dryer will denature or break down the venom.  Next, elevate the affected area and head to the hospital.  With most people, within 24 hours, the pain is gone, however some have numbness in the area for a longer period.   According to accurately reported incidents, including 146 patients, 92% to 100% of patents experienced local pain, 60% experienced swelling, 22% pain to the extremity of the limb, 13% experience systematic symptoms, 1% experienced tissue death and 0% experienced death.  A trip to the hospital is still advisable just in case there is a more adverse reaction and getting meds for the pain will be welcomed!  X-rays to show if any of the spine is left in the body is very important, since infection can start if left in the body.  This can cause bacterial sepsis, which definitely WILL kill a person!

You can keep them as a single specimen or as one male with several females numbering from 3 to 5 in a group.  Buy one large one and several smaller Shortfin Lionfish.  Do not house with lionfish in the Pterois genus since they will fight and the Pterois tend to eat them if they are small enough!  They also do not get along well with others in their genus who are solitary or more aggressive then they are.  When it comes to other fish, do not house with groupers and other fast moving predators, since the Shortfin Lionfish will not be able to get enough to eat.  Large angelfish, puffers and non-planktivore triggerfish will pick on their long fins.  The other fish in the tank should be their size or larger, and although they typically eat small crabs and shrimp, a small fish would be at risk.  Shortfin Lionfish tend to keep to themselves and the lack of super long fins make them less likely to accidentally stab a tank mate, though this is always a risk with lionfish.  The larger the tank the better for these “pokey” encounters! 

The tank should be 55 gallons for one Shortfin Lionfish, and should have several places for them to comfortably hide upside down during the day.  If you want one male and several females, the tank should be 75 to 100 gallons or more with plenty of hiding places.  Arrange rock work to form overhangs, caves and other formations allowing them the ability to rest upside down underneath.  They usually share their spot with others of their species, so make at least one area large enough for all your Shortfin Lionfish to fit under.  They mostly eat small crabs and shrimp, however they may  periodically eat small fish like small cardinalfish that happen to also hide in caves at night with them.  Still, provide several places for each lionfish to shelter and separate any that fight.  Once they feel secure they will spend more time in the open, which makes them a better pet compared to their close relative, the Zebra Lionfish who tends to hide most of the time.  Feed them marine sourced foods, since fish like goldfish or guppies are too fatty and are not typically accepted, since these lions like shrimp and crustaceans.  To help them to start eating, if nothing else works, try live fiddler crabs and glass shrimp.  Once they adjust, wait 3 to 4 days, getting them good and hungry, then put crab and shrimp flesh onto a clear feeding rod and wiggle it in front of them.  Repeat every week until they adjust and make sure the flesh is small since they do not eat large items.  Do not aim pumps in the area that they hide in during the day.  They can get used to lighting, but extra overhangs at the lower portion of the tank will help them adjust.

Scientific Classification

Species: brachypterus

Shortfin Lionfish – Quick Aquarium Care

Aquarist Experience Level:Intermediate
Aquarium Hardiness:Moderately Difficult
Minimum Tank Size:55 gal (208 L)
Size of fish – inches:6.7 inches (17.02 cm)
Temperature:70.0 to 80.0° F (21.1 to 26.7&deg C)
Range ph:8.1-8.4
Diet Type: Carnivore
Shortfin Lionfish
Image Credit: Stubblefield Photography, Shutterstock

Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Shortfin Lionfish, Pterois Shortfin, was first described by Cuvier in 1829.  They are known by many common names such as: Shortfin Lionfish, Dwarf Lionfish, Featherfish, Shortfin Turkeyfish, Shortspined Butterfly-Cod, Zebra Firefish, and Fuzzy Dwarf Lionfish.  Most of these names refer to their smaller fins or striping, and the term “Firefish” may refer to the fiery pain of being stung. 

Distribution – Habitat:

The Shortfin Lionfish is found in the Indo-West Pacific from the Red Sea and East Africa to Samoa, Tonga and then northward to southern Japan.  From there they are found south toward Lord Howe Island, Marinana Islands (Micronesia), the Arafura Sea and Australia.  They prefer reef flats and shallow lagoons.  In Madagascar and Papua New Guinea they inhabit seagrass beds on inner-reef flats.  Northern Red Sea residents of Shortfin Lionfish are found close to shore, on muddy bottoms.  There they are the only species of lionfish found in that habitat. They will also hide near isolated rocks, small coral heads and coral fragments, although they can also be found within dense coral growth.  These little lionfish are found at depths from 7 and 262 feet (2 to 80 m); however they are most often found at 7 to 98 feet (30 m).  At night, they will emerge from their upside-down day time slumber to hunt foods like small crabs and shrimp, but will occasionally eat isopods and polychaete worms.  Shortfin Lionfish will eat about 11 small prey items in one night, instead of 4 larger items like the large lionfish 

Similar Species:

Japanese Lionfish (Dendriochirus bellus):  Cold water lionfish that has a similar appearance, but without that “fuzzy” look.  And the fact that they are a cold water species.

  • Scientific Name: Dendrochirus brachypterus
  • Social Grouping: Harems – One male with several females and one or more juveniles for a group size of up to 10 individuals in the wild.

  • IUCN Red List: NE – Not Evaluated or not listed


The Shortfin Lionfish is a dwarfed version of larger lionfish, but has enough distinguishing features that is it hard to confuse them from others, even in the dwarf lionfish family.   They are deep bodied, being 2.6” from back to belly in adults.  Where they differ are their fuzzy scales and much smaller fin size.  Their dorsal fins are only 1.7” long and their body is a solid color with darker vertical bars.  One rare variation has bright yellow fins with a pinkish red body, alternating with reddish bars.  The second variation is red with pink and red stripes on the body and then gold to yellow stripes on the fins that alternate with red stripes.  These red stripes can also have black spots on them.  The last and most common color variation is brown with brown and pinkish stripes on the body, and pale yellow and dark brown striped fins.  They all have blueish eyes, and their fin rays are connected by a membrane which covers most of the rays to the tip, so they lack the “threadlike” appearance of bare rays that other lionfish have.  They do have those “chin whiskers” that the larger lionfish have.  Females have smaller heads and shorter pectoral fins, reaching only to the base of the caudal peduncle and their bellies, mouth and chin turn a silver white color when they are ready to spawn.  Females also have 4 to 6 stripes on their pectoral fins and males have 6 to 10 bands on their pectoral fins.  Males are a solid darker color during spawning.  

When hunting, the Shortfin Lionfish will move their dorsal spines from side to side in an exaggerated sweeping motion.  This may distract the prey and/or may help the lionfish strike with more accuracy; however it is unknown if both or just one of these aspects are the case.  Once they are close to the prey, they can strike quickly before lunch gets away.  They will also use cornering to trap prey.  Males get much darker all over when spawning.  They grow to to 6.7” (17 cm) and may live 10 years like other lionfish.  They are found in groups of 1 male and up to 10 other Shortfin Lionfish, most of which are female with one or two juveniles.

  • Size of fish – inches: 6.7 inches (17.02 cm) – 6.7” (17cm)
  • Lifespan: 10 years – They may be similar to other lionfish that live 10 years or more in captivity.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

These fish are moderately difficult, and best kept by intermediate aquarists.  Shortfin Lionfish insist on eating multiple small live foods, however with persistence they can be weaned to prepared foods.  Although older literature states that 30 gallons is acceptable, the new thought and most commonly accepted tank size is 55 gallons (208 liters) for one.  If adding more than one Shortfin Lionfish, introduce one large individual and several small individuals, at the same time, in a tank that is 75 to 100 gallons.  When choosing your Shortfin Lionfish from the fish store, make sure the fins are free of fin rot, the muscles on the upper back look filled in and not thinning from lack of eating, and ask them to feed the fish.  Their gills only move about 30 times a minute, so if it is faster, they may have a parasite infection in the gills.  Do not house with other lionfish since large lionfish will eat them if they can fit into their mouth and other dwarf sized lionfish tend to be solitary and/or much more aggressive.  Do not house with aggressive predatorial fish that can compete with them for food or can harass them.  

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately Difficult – Due to their need for small live foods, making it more difficult to wean them onto prepared foods.
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate

Foods and Feeding

These carnivores prefer shrimp and crab meat over fish meat.  Flake and pellet food is generally not accepted, although some specimens have been known to eat shrimp based pellets.  Pellets should not be the main fare.  Avoid freeze dried krill since it can cause gastrointestinal blockage (which can kill the fish) and nutritional deficiencies which can lead to the growth of a goiter.  Feed them any fresh or frozen then thawed raw crab and shrimp meat from marine sources to vary the diet.  You can feed them frozen/thawed mysis as well.  Offer them small pieces of food, equivalent to glass shrimp in size.  Offer small pieces of food to satiation 2 to 3 times a week, unless water temperature is on the lower end of the spectrum, then feed less often.  Supplement with Selcon or other vitamins for marine fish several times a week.

  • Diet Type: Carnivore
  • Flake Food: No – They generally will not eat flake.
  • Tablet / Pellet: Occasionally – Most won’t eat pellets, however if yours does, it should be the shrimp based large pellets. 

  • Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet – Glass shrimp and Fiddler Crabs to induce an eating response.
  • Meaty Food: All of Diet
  • Feeding Frequency: Daily – Feed 2 to 3 times a week, less if on the water temperature is on the cooler side.

Aquarium Care

Reef tanks:
-Medium-sized tanks from 55 to 90 gallons, perform 15% bi-weekly. 
-Large Tanks 100 gallons and over, once water is aged and stable can be changed 10% bi-weekly to 20% monthly, depending on bioload.
Fish only tanks:*
-Medium-sized tanks from 55 to 90 gallons, perform 20% to 30% monthly depending on bioload. 
-Large Tanks 100 gallons and over, once water is aged and stable can be changed 20% to 30% every 6 weeks depending on bioload.

For more information on maintaining a saltwater aquarium see: Saltwater Aquarium Basics: Maintenance. A reef tank will require specialized filtration and lighting equipment. Regular water changes done  bi-weekly will help replace the trace elements that the fish and corals use up.  Learn more about reef keeping see: Mini Reef Aquarium Basics.

Note: If this is the ONLY fish in the tank, with no corals or other fish you can get away 20% monthly.

  • Water Changes: Monthly – Bi-weekly in a reef setting.

Aquarium Setup

Provide your single Shortfin Lionfish with a 55 gallon tank that has several places for them to hide, such as caves, crevices and overhangs.  If keeping a harem, provide them with 75 to 100 gallons and many places to hide and add one large with several small specimens at the same time.  Remove any that fight with each other.  Do not house in a nano tank, since they will outgrow the tank rapidly.  Substrate and light do not matter to the lionfish, but a steady temperature of 70 to 80˚F (21 – 27˚C) is appreciated.  They have been known to breed in larger tanks with the temperature between 74 and 78˚F (23 to 26˚C).  As they adjust, they will come out into the open more often and can be found at all levels of the tank, either upside-down under a ledge or laying on the substrate. 

  • Minimum Tank Size: 55 gal (208 L) – 55 gallons (208 liters) – A harem will need 75 to 100 gallons for one male and 2 to 5 females).
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Live Rock Requirement: Typical Plus Hiding Places – They like to chill upside down, so take that into consideration when forming hiding places
  • Substrate Type: Any
  • Lighting Needs: Any
  • Temperature: 70.0 to 80.0° F (21.1 to 26.7&deg C) – 70˚F (21˚C) 80˚F (27˚C)
  • Breeding Temperature: 76.0° F – 76˚F (24˚C)
  • Specific gravity: 1.023-1.025 SG
  • Range ph: 8.1-8.4
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Any – Keep water movement low to moderate where they sleep.

  • Water Region: All
shortfin lionfish close up
Image Credit: fenkieandreas, Shutterstock

Social Behaviors

These fish are great alone or as a harem of 3 to 5.  Males have larger heads, 6 to 10 bands on their pectoral fins and their pectoral fins extend to the middle of the caudal peduncle.  So what is the caudal peduncle area?  It is the entire fleshy part of the tail fin that starts behind where the dorsal and anal fins end (where they are connected to the body) to the point where the tail fin rays begin.  Two males will fight.  They will fight with those from the Pterois genus and will be consumed by those large lionfish!  Other dwarfs are solitary or just mean and shouldn’t be kept with your Shortfin Lionfish.

Only house with fish that are the same size or larger than your lion, but do not house with large and fast predators that will outcompete them for food.  Frogfish, larger lionfish, large eels, and octopus will eat your Shortfin Lionfish.   Because of their longer beautiful fins, they will be harassed and damaged by large angelfish, pufferfish and triggerfish unless the triggerfish is a peaceful planktivore.  Shortfin Lionfish will attack other scorpionfish or porcupine fish. A crowded tank will increase the risk of other fish being stabbed by the lionfish.  The tissue around the wound will die and fall off and the fish may recover; however, most fish die within 10 to 30 minutes.  The impaling may be as innocent as a fish accidentally bumping into the lionfish’s spines because they were startled or chasing food or a nutty tang that just decided, “I have GOT to get over to the other side of the tank, NOW!”  All in all the Shortfin Lionfish tend to keep to themselves, but accidents can happen.  

These lionfish are often kept in reef tanks because they will not bother corals.

They will not bother starfish, cucumbers, snails or hermit crabs.  Any other crab or shrimp is on the menu!  Tube worms are safe and so are other “decorative” inverts.  They are great for getting rid of those pesky reef crabs that sometimes hitchhike on live rock!

  • Venomous: Yes
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive – Semi-Aggressive Predatory – Shortfin Lionfish stay to themselves and only are a threat if there are small shrimp or mobile crabs or small fish.
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species – conspecifics: Yes – One male with 3 to 5 females in captivity in a 75 to 100 gallon tank.
    • Peaceful fish (gobies, dartfish, assessors, fairy wrasses): Monitor – Smaller fish may be eaten, however full grown 6″ fairy wrasses such as the large Scotts Fairy Wrasse may be okay.
    • Semi-Aggressive (anthias, clownfish, dwarf angels): Monitor – They may be okay if they are the same size as your Shortfin Lionfish.
    • Monitor – Do not house with aggressive damselfish, and avoid the others on this list since they may pick on the lionfish or be eaten due to their small size.
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (tangs, large angels, large wrasses): Monitor – Make sure your lionfish is getting enough food with fast feeders like wrasses. Do not house with large angelfish, non-planktivore triggers or pufferfish.
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (lionfish, groupers, soapfish): Monitor – Frogfish, larger lionfish and large eels have been known to eat lionfish with no ill effects
    • Threat
    • Anemones: Safe
    • Mushroom Anemones – Corallimorphs: Safe
    • LPS corals: Safe
    • SPS corals: Safe
    • Gorgonians, Sea Fans: Safe
    • Leather Corals: Safe
    • Soft Corals (xenias, tree corals): Safe
    • Star Polyps, Organ Pipe Coral: Safe
    • Zoanthids – Button Polyps, Sea Mats: Safe
    • Sponges, Tunicates: Safe
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Monitor – Shouldn’t be a threat to snails, however shrimp and crabs (excluding hermits) will be consumed.
    • Starfish: Safe
    • Feather Dusters, Bristle Worms, Flatworms: Monitor – They will eat polychaete worms to supplement their diet.
    • Clams, Scallops, Oysters: Safe
    • Copepods, Amphipods, Mini Brittle Stars: Safe

Sexual differences

Males are larger with larger heads, 6 to 10 bands on their longer pectoral fins and will become a darker solid color when courting. 

Breeding / Reproduction

The Shortfin Lionfish are in harems of one male and 2 to 10 other individuals in the wild, with most being females and a few juveniles.  They will hide out in the same cave during the day.  When it is time to spawn,  the male will look for the female with a silvery white belly, gill and mouth area that has a white line from the eye to the chin skin flap.  Right before spawning females swell with eggs.  The male will court the female 20 to 30 minutes before sundown by first assessing if the female is receptive.  If she is, he will swim upwards into the water column 10 to 15 times before the female joins him.  When she is ready to let go of her 2 large egg balls, he will swim under her and push her upward toward the surface of the water and nip at those white skin flaps on her chin.  Her genital pore will enlarge and those 2 egg balls will be expelled containing 2,000 to 15,000 eggs, which will be fertilized by the male and will then fill with water until they are .7 to 2” in diameter (2 to 5 cm).  The advantage to these large egg balls is that they are less appealing to planktivores, giving the little babies a greater chance at survival.  These eggs will hatch in 36 hours in 78˚F (26˚C) and the larvae are a little larger than 1 mm and will feeding in 4 to 5 days when they are 2 mm long.  They may, like other lionfish, settle into the reef once they are 1” long.

Although they readily spawn in captivity, there are no known cases at this point where the larvae were successfully reared to a viable lionfish.

See general breeding techniques in the Breeding Marine Fish page.

  • Ease of Breeding: Difficult – They have been known to spawn in captivity, however the babies have not yet been raised successfully.

Fish Diseases

Shortfin Lionfish have a cuticle covering that is a thin membranous lining to prevent organisms from settling on them due to their sedentary lifestyle.  Once in a while, they will shed their cuticle layer to remove hitchhikers and looks like a white stringy mucus that trails behind them as they swim.  If your Shortfin Lionfish starts to shed more often, it is a sign that something is wrong with water quality, they are sick or they are stressed.  If they have good food and good water quality, they do not fall sick very often, however, the ailments they are prone to are fin rot, cloudy eyes, parasitic infections such as protozoa and worms.  Fin rot and cloudy eyes can be treated with antibiotics like nitrofurazone or similar products.   If they are infected with a parasite, use copper-based medications.  Fresh water dips and formaldehyde baths also help. 

If your lionfish stops eating, it can be a result of too much freeze dried krill that can cause blockage of the gastrointestinal tract.  Freeze-dried foods can also cause goiters and nutritional deficiencies.  Lockjaw is another condition where they end up with their jaw stuck in the open position and it is unclear what causes it, however, it is possible it is from hitting their jaws on rock work chasing a fish.  It usually fixes itself in a few days, although they tend to be more prone to dislocation in the future, after the first episode.  


These lionfish are found on the internet and in your LFS, however, you may have to order one an put some money down.  For the yellow color variation, be prepared to drop several hundreds of dollars!

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 Shortfin lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus) (Image Credit: Rickard Zerpe, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)