Dwarf lionfish (or is it lion fishes?) are popular and intriguing saltwater fish because of their remarkable coloration and shape, but also because of the graceful yet venomous danger held in their iconic, flowing fins. The most popular species in this genus are D. biocellatus (Fu Manchu or Two spot), D. brachypterous (Dwarf Fuzzy Lionfish), and D. zebra (Dwarf zebra lionfish).
Table of contents
- Scientific names: Dendrochirus biocellatus, Dendrochirus brachypterous, Dendrochirus zebra
- Common names: Fu Manchu, Dwarf fuzzy, Dwarf zebra, Two spot
- Aggression level: Very aggressive. Will eat everything it can swallow
- Care level required: Hardy and easy to care for–just watch out for the spines
- Diet: Carnivore
- Tank type: Large predator
- Warnings & precautions: Dwarf lionfish are protected by venomous spines. Use caution when hands are inside the aquarium
- Water parameters:
- Temperature: 22.8 to 28.9* Celcius, or 73-84* degrees Fahrenheit
- Salinity: 1.025
- pH: 8.1-8.4*
- Ammonia, Nitrites, Nitrates: 0 ppm, 0 ppm, 0-20 ppm
*While these values are listed as a range, it is generally best to keep those values stable, inside of that range. Even if you keep within that ideal range, you could stress out your fish if the environment is unstable, although some fluctuation in temperature and salinity could likely be tolerated.
Dwarf lionfish inhabit shallow coastal waters and have an affinity for caves and rocky outcrops where they can ambush their prey, mainly consisting of small crustaceans. They don’t require much room to swim and don’t grow very large, so they can probably be kept in a 55-gallon tank, or larger.
As is the case for most fishes, adding some rock work will create structures for hiding in and will likely help the fish swim about with less fear. Lion fish that are in the genus Pterois are full-sized lionfish, not dwarves, and need a much larger tank to be happy.
Lionfish may be shy when first introduced into the aquarium. I don’t have any specific unique advice to help coax out a shy lionfish, but the tried and true advice should help. Do your best to minimize vibrations and fast movement. Create areas of open and structure and introduce other suitable fish (that the lion won’t eat) to encourage swimming.
Lionfish are greedy eaters that prefer to hunt and eat live foods. When feeding, the lionfish will spread its pectoral fins out wide and methodically push the prey back, trapping it until it can be swallowed whole. A lionfish can open its mouth surprisingly wide.
A great first food to entice a newly introduced dwarf lionfish to eat would be live feeder shrimp. They are generally inexpensive, are nutritionally sound and the darting motion can be irresistible to a predator like a dwarf lionfish.
It is possible to get them to eat frozen and/or prepared foods by training them to accept these non-living foods instead. Training a dwarf lionfish to eat frozen foods is a lot like fishing—so if you enjoy both hobbies (like I do), that might be the best of both worlds! The trick is to trigger the dwarf lionfish’s predatory instincts by moving the food around, mimicking the movement of a prey organism.
Patience is important, as is trying to minimize unnatural movements to make the food appear more appetizing to these masterful predators. The Dwarf Lionfish is a greedy eater that won’t show moderation on its own. In the wild, it is not likely that they would catch meals each and every day, so to maintain portion control and not over-feed your lions, try to feed small-to-moderate amounts every other day or so. You may want to mix it up a bit and not make it exactly regular—but the point is that you want a full, happy, but not obese lionfish.
Watch this guy feed his dwarf lionfish by hand. Yikes! Don’t try this at home.
The Dwarf Lionfish are breathtakingly beautiful animals. But finding the right tank mates can sometimes be a problem. Technically speaking, is reef safe but not invertebrate safe—meaning, they won’t hurt sessile inverts like your SPS corals, LPS corals, Zoanthids, Mushrooms, or soft corals (unless they cause accidental damage while hunting for dinner), but they will hunt down and eat any saltwater fish, cleaner shrimp, or crabs small enough to fit in their mouths (and you’d be surprised how big their mouths really are).
While they are technically reef safe and would not directly nip at coral polyps and harm the corals that way, Dwarf Lionfish are ‘sloppy eaters’ and would require some pretty significant maintenance to keep water parameters in line for a traditional reef tank.
For that reason, most hobbyists keep dwarf lion fish with other predators (large enough not to get swallowed) or poisonous fish species that wouldn’t be harmed by the lionfish in a fish only aquarium.
Triggerfish, large rabbitfish, moray eels, and puffers are common dwarf lion fish companions although even these fish are not guaranteed to be able to outmaneuver hungry lions forever–and there are reports that eventually, the companion fish get the short end of the stick.
Lionfish have venomous spines. If you get stung, it is typically recommended that you get medical attention.Some have advised that you can neutralize some of the damage the venom causes by submerging the area stun in a hot water bath. The proteins in the venom that cause the damage in your body can theoretically be damaged themselves with the high heat.
This is a different type of Sting.
The challenge is finding a temperature that destroys the venom, without hurting you in the process. Yikes.
Dwarf lionfish owners report that their fish recognize and greet them, when they enter the room, seeming to beg for food much like a dog would.
The Dwarf Zebra Lionfish is one of the most popular species and gets its name because of the red white and black vertical stripes along its body and fins. This lionfish’s diet in the wild is primarily shrimp. It can grow to about 7 inches.
The Fu Man Chu Dwarf Lionfish has distinctive fins around the face which give it the Fu Man Chu look (and name).
They grow to be 5 – 6 inches long and are relatively shy, slow-moving fish that might not thrive with the most boisterous companions.
These amazing-looking fish get their name from the fuzzy texture of their scales and the unique stripes and patterns on their pectoral fins. Take a closer look and you can see.
The Dwarf fuzzy lionfish comes in three main colors: plain brown, striking red, and a rare yellowish hue. Adult males have 6 – 10 black stripes, while females only have 4 – 6 stripes. They grow to about 7-inches in total length.
Dwarf fuzzy lionfish are some of the most easily kept in a tank for a few main reasons:
- They are hardy and reasonably easy to wean onto frozen and prepared foods
- Are somewhat peaceful and won’t bother other similar-sized fish in the tank (anything larger than a big mouthful)
- Resistant to diseases and generally acclimate well to aquarium conditions
When first introduced, this fish is often a bit shy, particularly during the brightly-lit hours of the day. Over time, they should become bolder and may even begin to recognize you and swim out when you approach the aquarium.
In the ocean, they are sometimes seen hanging around upside down, with their bellies parallel with an overhanging structure, like a ledge (Michael 2001 Reef Fishes). So, if your tank has room, consider building some large rocky formations to try and replicate this behavior in the aquarium.
Spawning in captivity
The Fuzzy dwarf lionfish is a harem breeder and has been reported to have spawned in captivity.
Dwarf lionfish for sale
If you are looking to buy a dwarf lionfish and you don’t have a trusted local saltwater aquarium fish store nearby, you might want to check out the availability on Liveaquaria and That Fish Place. That Fish Place is a relatively local shop for me (in Pennsylvania) and they sell a lot of livestock online–and of course–Liveaquaria is one of the top online stores in the country. I don’t have any affiliation with either of these stores, I just know they have great reputations.
Watch lion fish-eating in this video:
Do you have a dwarf lionfish? Tell us about yours.
Michael, Scott W. Marine Fishes: 500+ Essential-to-Know Aquarium Species. TFH Publications. Neptune City, NJ: 2001.
Michael, Scott W. Reef Fishes: Volume 1: A Guide to Their Identification, Behavior and Captive Care. TFH Publications. Neptune City, NJ: 2001.