Dwarf Lionfish Species Overview, Care & Breeding Guide

If you are looking for a stunning fish that will make your saltwater tank more appealing, then you should definitely opt for the dwarf lionfish.

The striped marvel not only brings an element of grace to your tank but also adds a sense of mystery due to its venomous nature.

So, let’s embark on a journey to uncover this exceptional species and its care.

What is Dwarf Lionfish?

Dwarf lionfish is a saltwater fish that is renowned for its mesmerizing colors, distinctive shape, and some wonderful disease-resistant abilities.

OriginIndia, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Australia, Southern Japan, Africa, Samoa, Mariana Islands, Lord Howe Island, Houtman Abrolhos. Bay of Bengal, Philippine Sea, Japanese Sea, Red Sea, South East Asian Seas, Indonesian Seas, Tasman Sea, Western tropical Pacific Ocean
Scientific NameDendrochirus brachypterus
Common NamesZebra firefish, Short-spined butterfly-cod, Shortfin/short-finned turkey fish, Shortfin lionfish, Shortfin firefish, Short-spined scorpionfish, Featherfish, short spine rock cod, dwarf fuzzy Lionfish, Turkeyfish
IUCN Red List StatusLeast Concern
AppearanceMottled brown to reddish-brown body, darker bars, bands on pectoral fins, beige and brown stripes on the spiny dorsal area.
SizeUsually up to 12.7 cm (5 in) in captivity, max up to 17.7 cm (7 in)
LifespanUp to 10 years
TemperamentNon-territorial, slightly aggressive, especially towards other species sometimes.
Reef SafeYes
Tank LevelBottom-dwellers
Water Temperature73-84 °F (23-29 °C)
pH Level8.1-8.4
Water Hardness8-12 dKH
Care LevelModerate
Minimum Tank Size55 gallons for 1
Tank EnvironmentLots of hiding spots with rocks and corals.
Tank MatesA harem of one male and other females, similar-sized predators, or non-vulnerable, poisonous fish species

What is the natural habitat of a Dwarf Lionfish?

In the wild, the dwarf lionfish can be found in countries like:

  • India
  • Sri Lanka
  • Tonga
  • Australia
  • Southern Japan
  • Eastern coast of Africa to South Africa
  • Samoa

It’s also spotted on the following islands:

  • Mariana Islands
  • Lord Howe Island
  • Houtman Abrolhos.

The fish thrive in various seas and oceans, including the following:

  • Bay of Bengal
  • Philippine Sea
  • Japanese Sea
  • Red Sea
  • South East Asian Seas
  • Indonesian Seas
  • Tasman Sea
  • Western tropical Pacific Ocean.

The species likes shallow lagoons and reef flats where it hides among rocks covered with plants.

The grown-up lionfish often rest on sponges, while the younger ones sometimes gather in small groups near rocky outcrops.

According to the 2015 assessment of The IUCN Red List Status of Threatened Species, the fish is enlisted as Least Concern.

Which family do Dwarf Lionfish belong to?

The species belongs to the Scorpaeniformes order and Scorpaenidae family. Its binomial name is Dendrochirus brachypterus, whereas it’s popular worldwide with names like:

  • Zebra firefish
  • Short-spined butterfly-cod
  • Shortfin/short-finned turkey fish
  • Shortfin lionfish
  • Shortfin firefish
  • Short-spined scorpionfish
  • Short-spined butterfly-cod
  • Featherfish
  • Dwarf lionfish
  • Short spine rock cod
  • Dwarf fuzzy lionfish
  • Turkeyfish

Fun Fact: Dwarf lionfish owners often find that the fish recognizes and even greets owners when they enter the room. It behaves in a way that resembles a dog begging for food.

How do Dwarf Lionfish look?

Dwarf lionfish on coral reef

Now, if you are interested in knowing more about the fish, let’s dive right into exploring the physical traits and behaviors of the dwarf lionfish!

What is the size of Dwarf Lionfish?

In captivity, dwarf lionfish generally grow to about 12.7 cm (5 in), but they can potentially reach up to 17.7 cm (7 in).

What is the color of Dwarf Lionfish?

The dwarf lionfish has a mottled brown to reddish-brown body with darker bars, as well as distinct bands on its pectoral fins.

The spiny section of its dorsal fin shows beige and brown stripes, while the soft dorsal, caudal, and anal fins are transparent with beige and brown striped rays.

It can come in various colors like red, brown, silver, yellow, and black, which may vary depending on their origin. However, many pet store specimens often lack these vibrant colors.

A few rare variants are:

  • One with yellow fins, a pink-tinged body, and reddish bars.
  • One with red body with pink and red stripes, yellowish gold stripes on fins alternating with red stripes.

All variants have bluish eyes.

What are the Features of Dwarf Lionfish?

The deep-bodied dwarf lionfish typically may have leafy appendages on its head and along the lateral line. This fish lacks filaments on its pelvic fins and has 13 dorsal fin spines that are venomous.

It has large pectoral fins and tall dorsal fins. Its frilly fins stand out, especially the vibrant pectoral fins. The fish also has a short tentacle above the eye and chin whiskers.

A membrane connects and covers most of the fin rays. Unlike other lionfish, this fish lacks the thread-like appearance of uncovered rays.

The fish has venomous spines in its dorsal, anal, and pelvic fins for protection. Venom release depends on pressure and duration.

How do you differentiate between a male and female Dwarf Lionfish?

It can be quite challenging to differentiate between male and female dwarf lionfish. However, with some practice and a keen eye, you may notice subtle distinctions.

Males typically have larger, broader bodies and more pronounced pectoral fins.

On the other hand, females tend to have smaller heads that slope more. Additionally, when a female is ready to breed, she carries eggs and looks fuller.

How does a Dwarf Lionfish behave in the aquarium?

When introduced to a new environment, the dwarf lionfish is generally shy. It enjoys staying in solitude and excels at hiding among rocks and substrates during the day.

But it shows its true aggressive personality once it gets comfortable, especially towards smaller tank mates.

It is an ambush predator that hunts small fish and crustaceans that hang around the substrate. It crawls undetected when scared or to catch prey by surprise.

The males are aggressive towards each other. Hence, in groups, only one male can stay in one tank. The remaining conspecifics must be females.

They’re mostly inactive during the day and active at night.

What is the Lifespan of Dwarf Lionfish?

The dwarf lionfish typically lives for about 10 years in a clean and safe tank environment.

Author’s Note

The fish may act defensively when stressed. So it’s important to move slowly, think before acting, and take precautions.

  • If stung, seek immediate medical help. Symptoms include pain, swelling, and allergic reactions.
  • Soak the wound in hot, non-scalding water 100-110 ºF (38-43 ºC) for 20-30 minutes to neutralize the venom.

How to take care of Dwarf Lionfish?

Dwarf lionfish top view

If you’re ready to bring this fish into your home, let’s start creating its new habitat right here!

What is the Tank Size for Dwarf Lionfish?

The dwarf lionfish, being an ambush predator, doesn’t need a lot of swimming space. A 55-gallon tank is generally sufficient for one.

And to house one male and multiple females, you must opt for a 125-gallontank.

What is the Water Chemistry for Dwarf Lionfish?

Stable water conditions are crucial for your lionfish’s well-being. Some minor temperature and salinity fluctuations may be tolerated; maintain the following levels to keep them healthy:

  • pH Levels: 8.1-8.4
  • Water Temperature: 73-84 °F (23-29°C)
  • Water Hardness: 8-12 dkH
  • Ammonia: 0 ppm
  • Nitrite: 0 ppm
  • Nitrate: Below 20 ppm
  • Synthetic Salt Level: 29-35
  • Specific Gravity: 1.022-1.026

What Tank Environment should be kept for Dwarf Lionfish?

The way you arrange your aquarium can significantly impact your pet fish’s mood and overall health. Let’s create the best environment for them!

Do Dwarf Lionfish need Substrate in the tank?

The dwarf lionfish prefers to dwell at the bottom of the tank and is not particular about the substrate type.

Are Plants kept with Dwarf Lionfish?

Dwarf Lionfish are not typically kept with live aquarium plants. They are carnivorous predators that may harm or eat plants. Instead, it’s common to use artificial decor and rockwork to create a suitable environment for them.

What Lighting is needed for Dwarf Lionfish?

Dwarf Lionfish can become stressed under bright lighting conditions. To create a suitable environment, it’s advisable to use subdued lighting in your tank setup.

What Décor is needed for Dwarf Lionfish?

The fish hails from rocky habitats with reef or coral beds and prefers to stay in shelter over active swimming.

Ensure you provide plenty of hiding spots with rocks, corals, and crevice-like structures to make it feel right at home in your aquarium.

What Filtration is required for Dwarf Lionfish tanks?

The dwarf lionfish has basic filtration needs, primarily focused on controlling ammonia spikes in the tank.

Use a good skimmer to remove larger particles before they accumulate on the substrate.

To maintain clean water, consider replacing 20% to 30% of the tank’s water each month.

What is the Water Flow Rate needed for Dwarf Lionfish aquarium?

The fish prefers moderate to slow water flow. You may even consider stagnant conditions.

Fish Care Tip: Reduce nitrates in saltwater tanks using procedures like Jaubert, sulfur denitrator, bio pellets, or the vodka method.

What does Dwarf Lionfish eat?

The dwarf lionfish is an enthusiastic carnivore. It consumes anything that fits in its mouth, including smaller lionfish as well.

When you first bring the fish, it will be shy to come out during mealtime. Ensure it can see its food, as it often hides in the rock crevices.

Start with live ghost shrimp to entice a new dwarf lionfish to eat. They’re affordable, nutritious, and enticing for predators. Place them near the lion’s hiding spot. However, limit this diet to one month and then switch to a marine-based diet.

You can train lionfish to eat frozen foods with the following steps:

  • Withhold food for 3-4 days to make it hungry.
  • Introduce frozen food and move it using long-handle tweezers or tongs to mimic prey movement.
  • Be patient and avoid unnatural motions that trigger the fish’s predatory instincts.

The top food options for these fish consist of a diverse range of appropriate proteins like:

  • Lobster tail
  • Marine fish chunks
  • Octopus
  • Ghost Shrimps
  • Squids
  • Small crabs
  • Brine fish

Enhance these foods with drops of vitamins and supplement boosters.

Don’t feed it freshwater fish like guppies, minnows, or goldfish. They may carry diseases and won’t meet marine fish’s dietary needs.

Avoid overfeeding by providing small-to-moderate amounts two to three days a week to keep your lionfish healthy and happy.

Overfeeding can also block its gastric tract and prevent it from eating altogether.

In its natural habitat, the fish likes to eat during dusk or night. It comes out from its daytime hiding spots to hunt in the late afternoon.

What are the Tank Mates for Dwarf Lionfish?

Choosing tank mates can be tricky for this fish as it is aggressive in nature. So, many aquarists prefer to keep it in species-only tanks for safety and simplicity.

It’s best to keep dwarf lionfish in a small group consisting of one male and a number of females.

Even if you choose tankmates wisely, it still requires caution, as they may fight, displaying aggressive behaviors like gill flaring and chasing. If aggression escalates to biting, separate the fish involved.

If you still want a community tank, proceed cautiously and ensure continuous surveillance. House it with similar-sized predators or non-vulnerable, poisonous fish species.

Common companions include:

  • Clown triggerfish
  • Foxface rabbitfish
  • Snowflake moray eels
  • Puffers
  • Threadfin butterflyfish
  • Panther groupers
  • Rock beauty angelfish
  • Harlequin tusk fish
  • Maroon clownfish
  • Tangs like the kole, blue, purple, and doctorfish, sohal, gem, or chevron tangs.

Which Tank Mates to Avoid for Dwarf Lionfish?

Avoid housing the fish with:

  • Smaller or medium-sized fish (e.g.: blennies, damsels, and gobies): Since they can fit in the lionfish’s mouth, they’ll become meals for them.
  • Invertebrates (e.g.: crustaceans, crabs, and shrimp): These are among the fish’s preferred prey.
  • Larger predatory species (e.g.: frogfish, large eels, larger lionfish, large, angelfish, octopus): They may harass your lionfish, causing them to hide and potentially starve.
  • Docile fish: They may be harassed by aggressive lionfish, causing stress and injury.

Pro Tip: Avoid crowding your tank. Otherwise, it increases the chance of other species getting accidentally stung by the lionfish. The stabbed fish will die within 10-30 minutes.

Only very few survive, i.e., only when the flesh around the wound soon falls off and the fish recovers.

What are the Common Diseases associated with Dwarf Lionfish?

Dwarf Lionfish are quite resilient and rarely suffer from infections and diseases.

Interestingly, these fish have a protective layer called a cuticle to fend off parasites. If pests invade, they shed this outer layer.

However, they are not entirely immune and may fall prey to these common diseases.

Disease NameCausesSymptomsTreatment
Fin RotPoor water qualityFins rapidly disintegrate from the base and spread outward.Improve water quality. Consult an aquatic veterinarian if symptoms persist.
Marine IchParasite infestationExcessive skin mucus, pale skin, gill and fin cysts.Quarantine aquariums, use a commercial remedy, and improve water quality. Avoid freshwater dips, as they can be stressful and harmful. Consult a veterinarian if needed.
ColumnarisBacterial InfectionDrowsiness, appetite loss, gray/white patches, fin frayingImprove water quality, add antibiotics, reduce stress
LockjawUnknown, probably from hitting jaws on rocksJaw stuck openFixes on its own
Gastrointestinal tract blockageExcess freeze-dried krill consumptionAppetite loss, constipation, vomiting, no bowel movement, swollen abdomenFast the fish, only feed smashed tinned peas or other vegetables, add Epsom salt to tank

Quick Tip: Isolate new fish in the quarantine tank to check for signs of diseases like strange sleeping habits, restlessness, or losing appetite before adding them to your community tank.

How to Breed Dwarf Lionfish at Home?

Breeding dwarf lionfish in an aquarium can be challenging, especially for new breeders.

The greatest issue is to differentiate between the genders. But once you are able to do it, follow these steps.

What are the Ideal Mating Conditions for Dwarf Lionfish?

To initiate breeding, a separate breeding aquarium is often required. Use ideal tank conditions as usual. Add big enough caves to fit most specimens together.

It’s best to add 1 male and 2-10 females.

Female Mate of Choice

The group usually stays hidden in the same cave. When the male is ready to mate, he starts seeking females.

The male fish particularly favors signs like swollen females with pale colors like silvery white on their bellies, mouths, and gills. Another favorable sign is a white streak from the eye to the chin skin flap.

What is the Mating Ritual for Dwarf Lionfish?

The male fish courts the female fish for 20-30 minutes before sunset. If she shows interest in the male, he swims toward the upper water column and returns. This repeats for 10-15 times, and then the female joins.

The female fish has 2 egg balls containing 2000-15,000 eggs.

When she’s ready to release the egg balls, the male swims beneath her, pushes her further up, and nips at her white chin skin flaps.

Next, she passes the entire egg balls, which the male fertilizes with his milt while the eggs stay inside. The egg balls grow to 2-5 cm (0.8-2 in).

Since the egg balls are big enough, other fish don’t try to eat the eggs, mistaking those for plankton. The egg balls are buoyant for the first few hours after spawning.

When do Dwarf Lionfish eggs hatch?

It takes about 36 hours for the eggs to hatch, given you maintain a 78 °F (26 °C). The larvae are slightly longer than 1mm.

After 4-5 days, the larvae grow to be 2mm long. Feed them small food once they reach this size. Once it grows to 1 inch long, the larvae settle on the reef, similar to other lionfish.

Expert Advice: It is best to seek help from experts to identify the gender of the fish if you are keen to breed.

How to Buy Dwarf Lionfish?

Before buying these fish:

  • Look for specimens that show all their fins and rays.
  • Check if they are active and display their brilliant colors.
  • Ensure they have insatiable appetites.

A word from FishInAquarium

The dwarf lionfish is an excellent addition to any display tank, offering a feast for the eyes with their vibrant banding and charismatic behavior. Owing to its unique look, it can also be a great conversation starter.

With its unique characteristics, behavior, and recognition skills, the reasonably-priced fancy fish is a must-have for every aquarist with slight experience!

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the dwarf lionfish and the joys of keeping this species in your aquarium.

If you found this article informative and helpful, we encourage you to share it with fellow aquarium enthusiasts.

Don’t hesitate to shoot us an email if you need any help; we are keen to support your fishkeeping journey!

Minnie B Miller - Professional aquarist and owner of FishInAquarium

About Minnie B Miller

Minnie B. Miller, a professional aquarist and owner of FishInAquarium, has over 8 years of expertise in fish breeding and care, gained through her roles at AquaticTX and Sea Lion Landing. Having honed her skills with various aquatic species, she is dedicated to empowering fellow enthusiasts by sharing her knowledge and experience.