Biological Invasions

, Volume 19, Issue 6, pp 1917–1933 | Cite as

DNA barcoding significantly improves resolution of invasive lionfish diet in the Northern Gulf of Mexico

  • Kristen A. DahlEmail author
  • William F. PattersonIII
  • Alison Robertson
  • Alice C. Ortmann
Original Paper


Invasive Indo-Pacific red lionfish (Pterois volitans) have become well-established residents within reef communities across the western Atlantic Ocean where they pose substantial threats to native fish communities and reef ecosystems. Species-specific identification of prey is necessary to elucidate predator–prey interactions, but can be challenging with traditional visual identification methods given prey are often highly digested, thus not identifiable visually. To supplement visual diet analysis of lionfish (n = 934) sampled in the northern Gulf of Mexico, we applied DNA barcoding to identify otherwise unidentifiable fish prey (n = 696) via amplification of the cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) of the mitochondrial genome. Barcoding nearly doubled the number of identifiable fish prey, thereby greatly enhancing our ability to describe lionfish diet. Thirty-three fish prey species were identified via barcoding, twenty-four of which were not previously detected by traditional methods. Some exploited reef fishes were newly reported (e.g., red snapper, Lutjanus campechanus) or found to constitute higher proportions of lionfish diet than previously reported (e.g., vermilion snapper, Rhomboplites aurorubens). Barcoding added a significant amount of new dietary information, and we observed the highest prey diversity reported to date for invasive lionfish. Potential cannibalism on juveniles also was identified via DNA barcoding, with the highest incidence corresponding to high lionfish densities, thus suggesting density-dependent prey demand may have driven this response. Overall, DNA barcoding greatly enhanced our ability to describe invasive lionfish diet in this study, suggesting that even studies with relatively large diet sample sizes could benefit from barcoding analysis.


Red lionfish Diet composition COI MtDNA Gulf of Mexico Cannibalism 



We thank Dalton Kennedy, Scott Bartel, Clint Retherford, Bryan Clark, Andy Ross, Anna Clark, Jeremy Porter, Michael Day and Kylie Gray for assistance acquiring lionfish samples for this study. We thank Lei Wang, Pearce Cooper, and Natalie Ortell for minor assistance with molecular equipment. We thank Joseph Tarnecki, Brian Klimek, Justin Lewis, Steve Garner, and Michael Norberg for assistance with the processing of whole lionfish. This research was made possible by a Grant from The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative/C-IMAGE II and Mississippi Alabama SeaGrant (USM-GR03924-R-HCE-04-PD). Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at Sequences are accessible through the National Center for Biotechnology Information (

Author contributions

WFP and AR conceived and designed study; AR and ACO and KAD developed methodology; KAD conducted fieldwork; KAD generated sequencing data and molecular analyses under advice of AR and ACO; KAD and WFP analyzed data and performed statistical analyses; KAD wrote the manuscript; all co-authors provided review and editorial advice.

Supplementary material

10530_2017_1407_MOESM1_ESM.docx (44 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 43 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kristen A. Dahl
    • 2
    Email author
  • William F. PattersonIII
    • 3
  • Alison Robertson
    • 1
  • Alice C. Ortmann
    • 1
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Marine Sciences, Dauphin Island Sea LabUniversity of South AlabamaDauphin IslandUSA
  2. 2.School of Natural Resources and EnvironmentUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA
  3. 3.Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Program, School of Forest Resources and ConservationUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA
  4. 4.Department of Fisheries and Ocean Canada, Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy ResearchBedford Institute of OceanographyDartmouthCanada

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