All About Pufferfish

Pufferfish inflate with air and become spikey to deter predators. View image source.

Pufferfish are members of the family Tetraodontidae, which also includes fish that are referred to as puffers, balloonfish, blowfish, bubblefish, globefish, swellfish, toadfish, toadies, honey toads, sugar toads, and sea squab. There are more than 120 species of pufferfish worldwide.

Pufferfish have long, tapered bodies and bulbous heads. Some pufferfish are brightly colored, which warns predators that they are dangerous to eat, while others have more muted coloring, which provides them with natural camouflage.

Pufferfish range in size from one inch to more than two feet. They don’t have scales, like other fish, but have rough or spikey skin. The average lifespan of a pufferfish is around 10 years.

Pufferfish are omnivores that eat algae, mollusks, crustaceans, shrimp, oysters, crayfish and worms. They have four large front teeth that are fused into upper and lower beak-like plates, which are used to crush the shells of their prey.


How do Pufferfish Puff?

There are many varieties of pufferfish. View image source.

Pufferfish have a slow, somewhat clumsy swimming style, and it’s likely that their ability to inflate was developed to compensate for how vulnerable this makes them to predators. Rather than making a quick escape, they ingest huge amounts of water into their highly elastic stomachs. If the fish is out of water, it will ingest air instead of water. This transforms them into a virtually inedible ball. Some species also have spines that make them even less palatable. Pufferfish have this spines that are hidden until the fish has puffed up.

When a pufferfish is frightened, it unhinges it’s jaw to widen its mouth, and then sucks around 35 large gulps of water into its mouth. It then closes off it’s mouth and esophagus, and pumps the water down into it’s stomach. It takes about 14 seconds for a pufferfish to fully inflate. Pufferfish have no rib cages, and their skin and stomachs are very elastic.

Most species of pufferfish are poisonous, and contain tetrodotoxin. The symptoms of ingesting tetrodotoxin are light-headedness, dizziness, and numbness in the tongue and lips, vomiting, rapid heart rate, decreased blood pressure, muscle paralysis, and death. Death occurs because the toxin paralyzes the diaphragm muscles and impairs breathing.

Tetrodotixin is up to 1,200 times more deadly to humans than cyanide. There is enough poison in one pufferfish to kill about 30 adults, and there is no known antidote. Some predators, such as sharks, can eat pufferfish without any negative effects from the toxin.

Inflating is very stressful for pufferfish, and they are only able to inflate three or four times before needing a period of recovery.


Where do Pufferfish Live?

The male pufferfish nibbles on the cheek of a female. View image source.

Most pufferfish live in marine (ocean) environments, but they are also found in estuarine (bodies of water in which freshwater rivers meet an ocean) environments, such as in the Chesapeake Bay along the Atlantic Coast of the US.

They are most common in the tropics (near the equator), but can also be found in temperate zones (the middle latitudes between the equator and the poles). No pufferfish live in cold waters of the Earth’s polar regions.

Some puffer fish swim to freshwater and some live their entire lives in fresh water, without ever going to the sea. Most puffer fish are found in sub-tropical and tropical marine waters along the coasts.

Pufferfish often live in coral reefs and other relatively shallow waters. Before and just after hatching, pufferfish float and live on the surface of the water. After maturing enough to swim, they move deeper into the ocean community.

Some species of pufferfish are endangered. The Chinese pufferfish, wich is found in China, Japan, and Korea, is critically endangered due to overfishing. Another pufferfish, found only near Easter Island, is also endangered, because of the destruction of the coral reefs around the island.


How do Pufferfish Live?

Male pufferfish create nests to attract females. The nests create a refuge from water currents and facilitate fertilization. The nests are about 7 feet across, almost 80 feet below sea level, and take 7-9 days to complete. (Photograph by Y. Okata, June 29, 2012.) View image source.

The males of one newly discovered species of pufferfish creates large, circular nests on the sea floor. These nests have been called “underwater crop circles” because of their complex design. While the pufferfish that makes the nests are only about five inches long, the nests are around seven feet across.

The males flap their fins as they swim along the sea bottom, which moves the sand on the bottom and creates a series of symmetrical troughs. The males also decorate the ridges of the nest with shell fragments. It takes seven to nine days for the male to construct the nest.

Females visit the nests, and then lay their eggs in the fine sediment in the center of the inner circle. After laying the eggs, the females leave, and the males stay near the nest for six days.

The female puffer fish releases between three and seven eggs, which are extremely light and float to the surface of the water. After about a week, the eggs hatch. The young pufferfish still have a hard shell that protects them as their fins begin to grown. After the fins and tail have developed, the shell cracks off, and the pufferfish swims down from the surface to join the reef community below.

Many people keep pufferfish as pets, and believe that they demonstrate unique personalities. Keeping pufferfish requires a lot of careful attention, because they require a lot of water and the water must be kept clean and properly balanced in terms of salinity. Pufferfish get sick easily because they don't have fish scales to protect them. Pufferfish cannot be kept in a tank with other fish, because they are very aggressive. Their teeth also grow continuously, so they need to be provided with shellfish and coral to chew on.

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