Freshwater puffer fish are extremely interactive and interesting fish. Although not the easiest type of fish to keep, puffers are unlike an other species you’ll find in an aquarium. These fish are gorgeous and personable and make great “water puppy” pets! Puffer Fish are adorable looking fish with a comical, chubby appearance. They are particular curious because they have the ability to gulp air or water, puffing up until they look like a round ball. The majority of the Puffer Fish are marine inhabitants and are found in most of the tropical oceans of the world. Less than 40 types of puffer fish can be found in brackish waters, and only 29 species are truly freshwater Puffer Fish.
Unlike more typical fish, the body of the Puffer Fish is rigid, so they rely on their fins for motion and balance. Puffer Fish, along with their close cousins the Porcupine Fish, have a few unique methods of defense. They can both inflate their bodies and both are covered with prickly spines.
Puffers can win your affection, yet they are not a fish for the novice. They require special care and feeding. They are considered hardy only in the sense that they will almost always adapt to aquarium foods and are long lived in a premium environment. To successfully keep Puffer Fish means maintaining top water quality, providing plenty of room, and most importantly providing an adequate diet. They love to eat and look forward to seeing the person that feeds them like a puppy waiting for their owner to get home! Even though they seldom starve in an aquarium, they have special dietary needs that you must be aware of in order to keep them healthy.
Are Pufferfish Poisonous?
As their name implies, Puffer Fish have the ability to ‘puff’ themselves up with water or air if threatened. When they inflate, their spines protrude outward and this helps keep them from being eaten. Another defense of many puffer species is to harbor toxic substances in their flesh that is poisonous if eaten. Predators that do not head the danger signals, and eat puffers anyway and may die from choking, or from toxic poisoning. There are also usually several deaths reported in Japan each year from humans eating puffers which are not prepared properly.
The powerful neurotoxin found in the organs of some puffer fish is called tetrodotoxin, but not all puffers are poisonous. It is believed that puffers don’t actually produce this toxin however, because those kept in the aquarium or on fish farms are totally toxin-free. Rather they most likely accumulate the toxins in the wild as they feed on shellfish prey that may be carriers.
The Puffer Fish can be quite long lived in the aquarium, many living for 10 or more years. They range in size reaching from about 1″ (2.54 cm) to over 24″ (61 cm), though some of the marine species can reach close to 48″ (122 cm).
Puffer Fish need plenty of room to maintain water quality and they will most likely need to be kept singly. The temperament of these fish can vary greatly from one puffer to another, not only between species but often within a single species as well. These fish are predators and can be aggressive. For tank mates too large to eat in one bite, puffers can be extreme fin nippers. Sometime juveniles will be reported as good community fish, only to turn aggressive upon maturity. A single specimen tank is the safest route, and extreme caution should be taken when choosing tank mates at any time.
In the Wild
In the wild Puffer Fish are predators eating a variety of snails, shellfish, crustaceans, and other fish. In captivity they will eat almost everything that is offered and should be fed a variety of live, frozen and freeze dried meaty foods. Though puffers are fun to feed and will become quite adept at ‘begging’ for tidbits from their keepers, keep in mind how often to feed and the resultant load on the aquarium. Feed small puffers (under 2″) daily, mid sized puffers (2 – 4″) every other day, and large puffers (those over 4″) can be fed just two or three times a week.
As an interesting note, many puffers in the wild will blow or ‘spit’ at the substrate to uncover hidden crustaceans or other foods. In an aquarium some keepers have experienced their puffer spitting water at them from the surface of the water in an attempt to earn some tidbits of food. Be careful not to be fooled into overfeeding them.
Puffers have strong teeth that grow throughout their lives. They need to be offered hard shelled live food often to keep their teeth worn down. Acceptable foods include shellfish, crustaceans and hard shelled foods such as snails. If the teeth get too long, they will be unable to eat, requiring the owner to clip the teeth.