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Poisonous animals
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Venomous fish
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Scorpaeniformes, Mail-cheeked fishes (excluding Lionfishes and Stonefishes)


See also Lionfishes and Stonefishes.
Genera with venomous species:
Apistus, Apistops, Centropogon, Gnathacanthus, Gymnapistes, Helicolenus, Hypodytes, Neosebastes, Notesthes, Scorpaena, Scorpaenopsis, Sebastes (= Sebastodes), Sebasticus

The classification of the Mail-cheeked fishes is controversial and there are no clear boundaries between the families. The genera Inimicus, Minous and Choridactylus, which were previously included in the family of the Scorpionfishes (Scorpaenidae), have now been integrated into the family of the Stonefishes (Synanceiidae).


Pisces; Osteichthyes; Scorpaeniformes

Common names

Mail-cheeked fishes, Scorpionfishes, Rockfishes, Skorpionsfische, Drachenköpfe

Popular common names that are not always strictly used for the same genera: Bullrout, Cobbler, Waspfish, Rock cod, Rascasse, Fortescue, Sculpin, Drachenkopf


Coastal areas of tropical to cool seas. Notesthes in freshwater. Largest variety of species in temperate zones, although most of the venomous species are found in the tropical Indo-Pacific.

Notesthes: rivers and river mouths in eastern Australia.
Neosebastes: eastern Indian Ocean, northwest and central Pacific Ocean.

Apistus, Sebasticus and Scorpaenopsis: Indo-Pacific.
Scorpaena: Atlantic (including the Caribbean), Mediterranean, Black Sea, American Pacific coast.
Sebastes: American Pacific coast, Japanese coast.
Helicolenus: Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean.

Apistops, Centropogon, Gnathacanthus, Gymnapistes and Hypodytes: Australian coast.


Fig. 4.27 Scorpaena guttata


The superfamily of the Mail-cheeked fishes (Scorpaeniformes), to which the Lionfishes and Stonefishes also belong, includes over 1,300 species, which – depending on different expert opinions regarding their taxonomy – are divided into up to 36 families. Not all species have venomous fin rays, but roughly 80 species are believed to have been associated with envenoming in humans.

As typical groundfish, they are poor swimmers and live in coastal areas, usually at depths of 20–60 m. They prefer rocky coasts ("Rockfishes"), where they often dwell, well camouflaged, between stones or in hollows and in seaweed, but also half buried in the loose substrate. The Australian genus Notesthes only enters the marine environment for reproduction, and from there the juvenile fish return to freshwater, where they grow.

The appearance of Mail-cheeked fishes is varied. These are generally smaller fishes. Many species barely reach a length of more than 10–50 cm, although some Sebastes do grow larger than this. They often possess camouflage colouring that makes their body outline indistinct, an effect which is sometimes enhanced by loose flaps of skin. Robust body with large head, sometimes with spines on the head. On each side of the head there is a bony plate that extends from the eye over the gill cover, which is a distinguishing feature of scorpaeniform fishes (thus the name Mail-cheeked fishes).

The venomous species have modified fin rays with paired longitudinal grooves within which venom glands are stored. There are generally 12–15 of these venomous spines in the anterior dorsal fin, 1 in each of the pelvic fins and 3 in the anal fin. They are covered by a fairly sturdy integument. In contrast, Lionfishes have longer and thinner fin rays with smaller venom glands that are covered in a thin integument. In Stonefishes the rays are shorter and stronger than in Scorpionfishes and have extremely large venom glands and a thick covering (Fig. 4.20c).

Although Mail-cheeked fishes do not tend to be aggressive, they will erect their fin rays when threatened. In exceptional cases they will swim up to an opponent and inflict directed stings with their dorsal spines.


Stings from Mail-cheeked fishes are among the most common causes of accidents with venomous fish. During the sting the venom glands are compressed and the venom is squeezed into the wound along the longitudinal grooves.

Swimmers or divers are not commonly affected, as these animals are reclusive and are not often found in shallow water. Rather, most accidents occur in fishermen, frequently while sorting out fish from the nets. Several species, such as Scorpaena guttata on the US Pacific coast or some Scorpionfishes (Scorpaena sp.) in the Mediterranean, are popular edible fish. It is thus also possible for accidents to occur in the kitchen while preparing these fish.

In most cases the effects of the venom are limited to strong local symptoms with radiating pain and swelling.

Literature (biological)

Breder 1963, Cameron and Endean 1966, Eschmeyer 1969, Halstead 1988, Harris and Pearn 1987, Helfman et al. 2009, Hinton 1962, Jones and Derbyshire 1987, Maretic 1988, Tortonese 1970, Williamson et al. 1996

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