Discovery Hall Programs educator Jennifer Latour leads a group of activities focused on the lionfish invasion in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The red lionfish, a beautiful, but non-native venomous fish, has recently invaded the Gulf of Mexico.  This fish species was discovered off the coast of Florida in 1985, and quickly became established along the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean.  In 2010, lionfish began appearing around natural and artificial reefs in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  Researchers at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab have observed changes in the biodiversity and trophic structure of these reefs since the lionfish appearance. 

While, unfortunately, invasive species are not a new issue in Alabama – consider fire ants, popcorn trees, nutria, cogon grass – the story of the lionfish invasion gives teachers and educators another opportunity to teach students about invasive species, biodiversity, and human impacts on our ocean ecosystems.  

Discovery Hall Programs educator Jennifer Latour has been fascinated by lionfish for many years.  As she worked with researchers at DISL, she developed a number of activities that could help to communicate the invasive species issue and the lionfish story to students.  This group of activities titled When Exotic becomes Invasive: Lionfish in the Northern Gulf of Mexico is now being shared with teachers and students across the northern Gulf of Mexico. The activities include Mapping the Lionfish Invasion, Lionfish Dissection, and a game called the Lionfish Invasion!.

Mapping the Lionfish Invasion is a hands-on representation of the spread of lionfish.  Students are given geographic coordinates of locations where lionfish were discovered and map those data onto a projected (or printed) map.  Mapping not only results in a visual depiction of the path of invasion over time, but in the age of GPS and smart phones, allows students to practice their geographic skills.  

The Lionfish Dissection activity demonstrates how scientists determine the impact of an invasive species on a food web. Students perform an analysis of the stomach contents of a lionfish ‘puppet’ and identify and record which native species are being eaten.  Students not only practice math skills, but begin to understand the difficulties of identifying partially digested prey. During this activity, they experience the importance of good record keeping and data analysis in scientific research.  

The Lionfish Invasion! game involves students in management aspects of the lionfish invasion.  Students become 'reef keepers' and face challenges associated with lionfish population growth.  This engaging game highlights the adaptations and behaviors that make the lionfish a great example of an invasive species.  It also gets students to consider the need for management practices and explore their own ideas for solutions.

Latour has shared this unit on the invasive lionfish with teachers and other educators at several professional meetings, most recently, the 2017 National Science Teachers Association meeting in Los Angeles.  Teachers found the lionfish story an appropriate context for covering adaptations, exotic versus invasive species, food webs, human impacts on ecosystem biodiversity and resilience, as well as research techniques, graphing, and data analysis.  

For more information about these lionfish activities and lionfish, please contact Discovery Hall Programs or Jennifer Latour (