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What would you do, if you were a reef fish, to lessen your chances of getting eaten? Taste bad? Be spiny, hard to swallow? Cryptically colored, marked? Maybe exude a toxic slime? Well, the fishes we call puffers beat you to it; they do all this and more; and it works, they are found worldwide in tropical and temperate seas with few predators.
The various puffers, the box, cow, burr and porcupine fishes offered in the trade have many things going for them as good aquarium fishes; they're reasonably priced, easy to feed, attractively colored, whimsically shaped, and most are hardy and long-lived. As far as intelligence, puffers "go to the head of the class" in the way of fishy I.Q.'s; they quickly learn who you are and your association with feeding.
Their downsides are few, but daunting; they'll eat most any non-fish, or slow fish; some are noted fin-nippers, and the cowfishes may be hazardous to your systems' occupants health.
Puffer groups are part of the "last" or "highest" order of fishes the Tetraodontiformes, along with the triggers, filefishes, and a couple of non-aquarium fish families, the spikefishes and ocean sunfishes.
The various puffers share many characteristics with other members of their Order. Here is the current version of this groupings prominent aquarium contenders:
Order Tetraodontiformes (Plectognathi)
Think of all the things you know about the Filefishes and Triggers; their locomotion, body inflation, dentition, sound production... in their overall habits these assemblages of fishes are quite similar. Let's expand on this.
How do puffers "get around"? Largely through undulating their dorsal and anal fins, using the caudal for a balancing rudder and quick (well, relatively) bursts of speed.
Puffers "puff up" to varying extents in response to threatening situations. As do the triggers and files with their distensible ventral sides aiding their elevated dorsal spines in making them harder to swallow or blow away in currents. All are missing lower ribs; the puffers foregoing other bony body parts and scales as well. For those who want to know puffers have an outpocketing of the gut (diverticulum) that may be filled with water (or regrettably, air) and kept their via a specialized valve. The stretched abdominal muscles expel the ingested water through the diverticular sphincter when danger is past.
Families and Favorites:
A Real Oddball Puffer, the Three-Tooth
The Family Triodontidae has only one species, Triodon macropterus, the Three-Toothed Puffer. How many fused teeth do you think it has? It has a strange deep-bellied profile and is very rarely seen in the trade.
Freshwater Puffers: Tetraodon (22spp.)
Picking out a good puffer is pretty simple; most are adaptable to given conditions, as long as they haven't been beaten to death in transit from collection and transport.
Check the skin, especially around the mouth and fin origins, and the eyes for sores and abrasions; these are tender on puffers and show white and red marks from netting and other traumas.
Take care NOT to lift these fishes into the air. Oh sure, they may look cute, all puffed up round and helpless, but too often the air is not expelled completely and the animal suffers for it. Instead, gingerly scoot the specimen into a partially water-filled bag underwater.
The habitat for displaying puffers should reflect their reef existence, with rock and rubble to gain comfort in cover, and sand to search and blow through looking for food.
Puffers for other than fish-only systems? Oh, they love invertebrates- to eat. Even the smallest species will sample corals, anemones, echinoderms, crustaceans et al. to bedevilment; yes, & they'll even eat smaller unaware fishes.
What else? They bite; more than tankmates, they'll cut into decor including electrical cords. Make sure and conceal your power lines if they're in with puffers.
It seems no matter what is written and advised in person, aquarists overfeed their puffers. In the wild a "typical" posture for these fishes is setting on or near the bottom, watching, resting, "waiting" for something of interest to investigate or eat. In captivity, they soon learn to "do the dance" of getting us to feed them frequently and too much. Be aware of how much food you're throwing in, even though "it seems so hungry".
Frequent water changes, good circulation and protein skimming are necessary with these fishes and their messy owners.
The Trunkfishes have been mentioned for their defensive habit of poison slime production. Take care to not place them with "disturbing", fast-swimming tankmates.
Fish tankmates almost always shy away from interacting with puffers, somehow knowing their unpalatability or outright toxicity on ingestion. One exception that should be avoided are cleaner gobies, shrimp (or Labroides wrasses should you use them). Incessant pecking at their sensitive hides is too much, even by tiny Gobiosoma.
Some puffers are known to be haremic in the wild (Canthigaster), but most are found singly, and in my opinion, should be housed this way in aquariums. I know folks who have successfully mixed different puffer species; they give credit to having disparate sizes, adding them all at once and/or sheer luck.
Not to beat the issue to death, the careful movement of these fishes involving NOT mixing shipping water to your main system(s) is paramount. A lot of "slime-poisoning" could be alleviated by taking the time to dilute the puffer's bag water with system or acclimation fluids in the process of placing them. How hard is this to understand? A good part of the bag water is poured off and replaced with the water the animal will be moved to; a serial dilution is effected.
Predatory Prey Relations:
Different puffer groups are notorious for their poisonous slime and internal organs. I really like sushi bar going (I put it in my resume as a favorite activity), but I will not eat Fugu (puffer) no matter how well trained and accredited the chef is. Puffer "guts" are used worldwide to kill feral animals, and take the lives of a few dozen hapless fisher-people and sushi bar goers every year. Puffer fishes are also implicated in general fish food poisoning, ciguatera. The lesson here? Don't eat them.
Most would-be predators seem to be aware of these toxins and steer clear of consuming or bothering puffers, as well they should.
Of species known, puffers spawn in warmer months, a courted female releasing her eggs near the bottom, being fertilized by a male above her as they rise. The Boxfishes have eggs that hatch out in algal "nests" on the bottom, all young develop as plankton.
Puffers are opportunistic omnivores; they eat most anything and everything. In the wild they feed on all types of invertebrates, algae and carrion. Very important is the inclusion of greenery in their diets; live algae is best, but a prepared green food on the bottom will do. Especially for the Boxfishes, it is imperative to get them feeding ASAP.
They also need hard food materials, to wear their naturally ever-growing "tooth" plates; shrimp, crabs, mussels & the like in the shell.
Feed moderate amounts and distract your puffer so other tankmates get fed. Be leery about feeding puffers to satiation; this makes a big mess and they can grow too big, quickly. Some species get LARGE, longer than your arm.
Puffer species are very susceptible to Cryptocaryon and Amyloodinium (as well as the eye, skin abrasion, and gas from lifting maladies already mentioned), but fortunately respond well to copper treatments.
The closest thing to an "aqua-dog" are the puffers. Except they will bite the hand that feeds them, and you might croak if you give them a kissy.
Do you have a spot in a fish-only system, maybe with plenty of algae growth, or want to get rid of that mantis shrimp that has eaten everything else? Porky the puffer's awaiting your call.
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Edmonds, Les. 1989. Boxfishes-armor in the aquarium. TFH 7/89.
Esterbauer, Hans. 1991. The yellow-spotted Burrfish, Chilomycterus spilostylus. TFH 12/91.
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Michael, Scott W. 1991. An aquarist's guide to the Tobies (Genus Canthigaster), pt.s 1,2. FAMA 1,2/91.
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Michael, Scott W. 1997. The puffers; unique in many ways. AFM 8/97.
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Pyle, Richard L. 1989. Whitley's boxfish, Ostracion whitleyi Fowler. FAMA 7/89.
Quinn, John R. 1986. Puffers & friends; a look at the pros and cons of keeping the popular puffers. TFH 5/86.