Venomous Marine Fish: It’s Hard to Define the Effects of Their Stings

Stonefish are some of the most venomous fish in the world

Stonefish are some of the most venomous fish in the world

People are naturally fascinated by venomous animals and often very curious about the effects their venom might have on people they bite or sting. Any marine aquarium hobbyist who’s kept a lionfish, rabbitfish, saltwater catfish, or other fish species equipped with venomous spines, can attest to this curiosity, as they’ve probably been asked time and again by people observing their tank to describe how painful the fish’s sting might be or whether its venom is potentially deadly.

The trouble with these questions is that there isn’t always a straightforward answer to them. Besides, it’s generally not a good idea to make assumptions about how someone’s body might react to being envenomated by a given species. Let’s explore why this is true a bit further:

The pain comparison

How painful is a lionfish sting? Is it the same as a bee sting? Which sting hurts more: a foxface’s or a leaf scorpionfish’s? It’s understandable that people ask these kinds of questions, but anyone who tries to answer them definitively just isn’t being honest. Why do I say this?

Is a lionfish sting comparable to a bee sting? That depends.

Is a lionfish sting comparable to a bee sting? That depends.

First, people’s perceptions of pain are highly subjective. If you take any group of 10 people, give each a rap on the knuckles with a ruler (ala Sister Elizabeth Marie), and then ask them to describe their pain, you’ll probably get 10 different answers—ranging anywhere from mild to excruciating. Heck, it’s hard enough to get two people to agree on how painful a bee sting is, let alone find a meaningful way to compare the perceived painfulness of a bee sting to that of a venomous fish.

Second, the degree to which a sting causes pain can vary depending on the severity of the sting, the amount of venom injected, the location of the sting on the body, the body’s unique physiological response to the presence of the venom, and various other factors.

The degree of deadliness

Now, there’s no question that some venomous fish pack an extremely potent venom and are much more capable than others of causing death in people. For instance, I’d far and away rather be stung by the Siganus unimaculatus (onespot foxface) in my tank than by Synanceia horrida (the horrid stonefish) or one of its congeners. Still, it’s unwise to make assumptions about the potential lethality of a species’ venom.

Siganus unimaculatus (onespot foxface) are venomous and often kept in home aquariums.

Siganus unimaculatus (onespot foxface) are venomous and often kept in home aquariums.

The danger here isn’t in overestimating how dangerous envenomation by a particular species might be, but in underestimating it. Different people react to venom in different ways. Take a bee, wasp, hornet, or fire ant sting for example. For most people, running afoul of stinging insects is merely a painful inconvenience, but for those who happen to be allergic to their venom, a simple sting can lead to potentially deadly anaphylaxis.

Be wary of amateur medical advice

That brings me to my next and final point: Because reactions to venom can vary so significantly from one individual to the next, it’s never a good idea to rely on catch-all advice dispensed by other hobbyists on how to manage a sting. If you’re ever stung or bitten by a venomous species, the prudent course is to seek medical attention promptly. Remember, in addition to dealing with the immediate effects of the venom itself, you also have to consider the risk of an allergic response as well as the potential for secondary infection at the wound site. All of these concerns are best dealt with under the care of a physician.

Photo credit: walknboston, SSHB, Kevin McGee


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Paul Baldassano says

    I have been stung by multiple wasps, fire coral, urchins and once a rabbitfish. The rabbitfish was in my tank and jumped up out of the water, over my hand and just brushed my thumb. The pain was almost immediate and much, much worse than any wasp on speed. I have also been stung many times by fire coral and still have numerous urchin spines in my belly from stupidly swimming over them in shallow water. Fire coral is aptly named as it feels exactly like you are on fire and the pain lasts way over an hour before it starts to subside. But with most stinging organisms, it depends on how much of your skin was exposed to the coral or how many spines the rabbitfish decided to sting you with and how much of a Man you are. Urchins don’t hurt that much but you can’t get the spines out and they just break off in you so you look like a drug addict who missed his arm. Of course some urchins are poisonous and some are just annoying. At least wasps, you can kill. After you get stung by firec oral all you can do is use harsh language on it because you really don’t want to kick it.

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