Pushing the switch: functional responses and prey switching by invasive lionfish may mediate their ecological impact

Monica McCard*, Josie South, Ross N. Cuthbert, James W.E. Dickey, Nathan McCard, Jaimie T.A. Dick

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)
78 Downloads (Pure)


Biodiversity is declining on a global scale and the spread of invasive alien species (IAS) is a major driver, particularly through predatory impacts. Thus, effective means of assessing and predicting the consequences of IAS predation on native prey population stability remains a vital goal for conservation. Here, we applied two classic ecological concepts, consumer functional response (FR) and prey switching, to predict and understand the ecological impacts of juveniles of the lionfish (Pterois volitans), a notorious and widespread marine invader. Functional responses and prey switching propensities were quantified towards three representative prey species: Artemia salina, Palaemonetes varians, and Gammarus oceanicus. Lionfish exhibited potentially destabilising Type II FRs towards individual prey species, owing to high consumption rates at low prey densities, whilst FR magnitudes differed among prey species. Functional response attack rates (a) were highest, and handling times (h) lowest, towards A. salina, followed by P. varians and then G. oceanicus. Maximum feeding rates (1/h) and functional response ratios (FRR; a/h) also followed this impact gradient for the three prey species. Lionfish, however, displayed a potentially population stabilising prey switching propensity (i.e. frequency-dependent predation) when multiple prey species were presented simultaneously, where disproportionately less of rare prey, and more of abundant prey, were consumed. Whilst FR and FRR magnitudes indicate marked per capita lionfish predatory impacts towards prey species, a strong prey switching propensity may reduce in-field impacts by offering low density prey refuge in biodiverse communities. Our results thus corroborate field patterns documenting variable impacts of lionfish, with prey extirpations less likely in diverse communities owing to frequency-dependent predation.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBiological Invasions
Early online date05 Mar 2021
Publication statusEarly online date - 05 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Frequency-dependent predation
  • Interaction strength
  • Invader impact prediction
  • Marine biology
  • Pterois volitans

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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