Green Spotted Puppies, er… Puffers
By Jeni C. Tyrell AKA "Pufferpunk"
Early in my fish keeping years, I came across a little yellow fish with black
polka dots. It had a cute baby face and greeted me at the glass, like a puppy
dog, appearing happy to see me. I had to have him. I took the little cutie home
and everything seemed fine as I went to bed. I awoke to find the rest of the
fish cowering in one half of my aquarium, missing fins and tails. The little
“sweetheart” was happily buzzing around the other side of the tank, belly full
of fins. I realized this was definitely not a fish for my community tank and
sadly returned him.
Since then, I have set up a separate aquarium for my favorite puffer: the Green Spotted Puffer, or GSP (Tetraodon nigroviridis). I now have 2 beautiful fat 6” adults, Cricket and Bozo. They live in a 55g tank. I decided to write an article about them, to prevent many more of these fellows from having to be returned, or even flushed, because of misinformation given at the stores they are purchased. GSP's are probably the most commonly available Puffers in the aquarium market today. Mostly sold as “freshwater” fish, they are really a brackish water species. Born in freshwater, they migrate through the estuaries (streams) between freshwater lakes and the ocean, to live out their adult lives in saltwater. Although you may hear these fish do fine in freshwater, they will grow larger, have brighter coloration, suffer less disease and live longer in higher salinities. It is our duty as fish keepers to keep our friends in the best possible conditions for their health and happiness.
Puffers must be introduced into a fully cycled tank. Please do not cycle your
tank with Puffers in it, or any other fish for that matter. Fishless cycling is
quick and doesn’t do harm to a living thing. You can also “instant cycle” with
Bio-Spira. You need to add your fish immediately after adding these live
bacteria to your tank. Aragonite or crushed coral substrates are used to help
maintain a stable alkaline pH of around 8. I suggest keeping Green Spotted
Puffers at low-end brackish water when juvenile <2”, (at a specific gravity of
1.005-08), at 2-4”, medium BW
(specific gravity 1.010-15) and adult >4” SW (SG 1.018-22). You must use
marine salt. You will need a hydrometer to measure the salinity. It takes a cup
of salt/5 gal of water to raise the SG .005. If the Puffer you purchase is in
freshwater at the store, then you should start out your tank in freshwater and
raise the specific gravity by .002/week, until you reach the desired specific
gravity. This is so you don’t destroy the good nitrifying bacteria as you add
salt. Saltwater bacteria are different than freshwater, so you need time for the
saltwater bacteria to develop, as the freshwater bacteria die off slowly. If the
store keeps their Puffers in brackish water (congratulations, you’ve found a
store that really cares about their fish), cycle your tank at whatever specific
gravity the Puffers are living in at the store. If you already have an
established brackish water tank and are buying a Puffer kept in freshwater at
the store, you need to acclimate it very slowly. Whenever I change a fish over
from freshwater to brackish water, brackish water to saltwater, or visa-versa, I
use a drip system. I put the fish in a bucket below the tank I will be moving it
into, covered by water from the tank the puffers were living in, about 1" over
its head. I tie a knot in an air hose until it drips enough water into the
bucket to raise or lower the specific gravity in the bucket .001/hour.
Puffers are messy eaters and high waste producers. Extra filtration is necessary
for these dirty fish. Immaculate aquarium upkeep is a must. Algae growth also
needs to be removed by the fish keeper. There are no brackish water algae eaters
that can live with a Green Spotted Puffer. (Sorry, you’ll have to do your own
maid service!) Because of their
aggressiveness towards tank mates and the high amount of salt they prefer, there
are not many fish that can live with them as companions in general, or for clean
up. Only after my puffers were raised to saltwater, was I able to
“trick” them into letting me keep hermit crabs with them by scattering
many empty shells around the substrate. They just can’t tell the hermit crabs
are there. Perfect water parameters are necessary for Puffers. This means 0
ammonia, 0 nitrIte and nitrAtes below 20. I do 50% weekly water changes on all
my tanks, vacuuming under décor and getting into plants to remove all uneaten
food as I go. Puffers are scaleless fish and are without gill covers. Therefore,
these fish are very sensitive to most meds and this is why keeping perfect water
conditions are so important for them. The best way to keep them healthy is not
to let them get sick. Water changes, water changes, water changes!
When choosing your long-lived pet (10+ years), try to find one with a round
belly that comes to greet you at the glass. You can start a young one out in a
10-15g tank, but once it is >2” they need a 20-30g tank/fish. Keep in mind that
in tanks this small, puffers will not be tolerant of tank mates. Puffers are
wild-caught fish and many come in with internal parasites. If your Puffer eats,
but still looks thin, or has stringy-looking feces, it could be carrying
internal parasites. I prefer the product Discomed, by Aquatronics, for the
treatment of internal parasites. You must soak their food in it and treat for 7
days. Puffers get pretty beat up during shipping and over crowding. Most have
nipped fins when received; some are even missing fins. Getting them into
brackish water as soon as possible is one way to help with that. I also like to
add Melafix to the water to help with re-growth. I quarantine all new fish so I
don’t have to treat the whole tank and to prevent spreading possible diseases.
One of the most difficult aspects of keeping these special fish is their diet.
All puffers are predatory fish and need hard-shelled, meaty foods to keep their
teeth trimmed. Like rabbits, their teeth grow constantly and can overgrow enough
to cause starvation in the fish. Puffers eat crustaceans in the wild. Foods for
smaller puffers are frozen/freeze-dried krill/plankton, gut-loaded ghost shrimp,
glass worms, crickets, worms and small snails (the size of their eye). Snails
are an essential food to a Puffer’s diet, especially when small. Many serious
puffer keepers breed their own snails. As your puffer gets larger, there are
many more crunchy foods for them to eat. Larger Green Spotted Puffers will eat
cut-up pieces of scallops, shrimp, crab legs, whole mussels, clams, oysters,
squid, lobster and crayfish. Mine love to chase live crayfish, fiddler crabs and
gut-loaded ghost shrimp. I gut-load (pre-feed) my live food with algae wafers,
so my puffers get their veggies. I buy most of these foods at the fish
department of my grocery store, freeze and later thaw in warm vitamin water as
needed. Smaller Puffers (under 2”) need to eat every day, skipping one
feeding/week. Feed them until their bellies are slightly rounded. Medium sized
Puffers (2-4”) should be fed every other day. Larger puffers (4-6) should be fed
every 3-4 days. You may find this schedule difficult, as Puffers are very adept
at begging for food! Feeding
puffers every time they beg will cause fat, lazy fish and eventually you will be
killing them with kindness.
These little alien-looking creatures are highly intelligent (for a fish),
personable and entertaining. I have had luck with them tolerating some tough,
fast-moving tank mates, only to find them missing after several months or even
years. Younger Puffers may seem more docile, but all will nip the fins of
slower-moving or long-finned fish. I have been very successful keeping my Green
Spotted Puffers with their own kind and also with the Ceylon Puffer (T.
fluviatilis), as long as they are all the same size. I wouldn’t suggest any
other Puffers with them. Some folks have mentioned some success in keeping Green
Spotted Puffers with Figure Eight Puffers (T. biocellatus), but I believe it is
only because the Green Spotted Puffers are still young. Figure Eight Puffers are
only mildly aggressive and grow to half the size of a Green Spotted Puffers.
Adult Green Spotted Puffers are extremely aggressive predators and the majority
of them have a nasty disposition. They are vicious fin-nippers and known
killers. Therefore, choose their tank mates carefully or be prepared to loose a
Green Spotted Puffers need a heavily decorated tank with plenty of swimming
room, lots of hiding places and various broken lines of sight. If your puffer is
constantly swimming up and down the glass, he is bored and needs more décor to
swim around and investigate. Some folks occasionally move décor around for added
interest to this clever little fish’s life. Always have a secure lid on your
Puffer tank and check often that it is closed. They are known jumpers!
Do not try to make your Puffer puff! Puffing is a defense mechanism brought on by fear and stress. It is not good for your Puffer to inflate itself. Never take your Puffer out of the water! It can puff with air and may never recover. I have had some success in “burping” a Puffer by holding it vertically (head up) under water and gently shaking it by its tail until the air is released. A puffer with air inside cannot right itself and will die. If you ever need to catch your Puffer (even when getting it from your LFS), scoop it up with a container.
Beware of Imposters!
There is a lot of confusion about Spotted Puffers in many books and on the net. There are 3 fishes commonly known as "Spotted Puffers". Green Spotted Puffers have many common labels given to them at the LFS (local fish store); "Leopard Spotted Puffer", "Leopard Puffer", "Green Puffer", "Green Spotted Puffer", or "Spotted Puffer". <Editors' note: This is precisely why it is important to be able to ID fishes by scientific names!> There are only 2 “Spotted Puffers”, the first is the rarely seen T. shoutedeni, known in the trade as the "Congo Spotted Puffer". This is strictly a freshwater Puffer. The only visible difference between the Congo Spotted and Green Spotted Puffer are the longer spines on the Congo’s belly. It is highly doubtful that you have a Congo Spotted Puffer in your tank, as they are almost never found in the aquarium trade and would be very expensive to purchase.
A widespread identification error is that there are two kinds of Green Spotted
Puffers. Both the true "Green Spotted Puffer" (T. nigroviridis), and "Green
Puffer" (T. fluviatilis) are commonly labled "Green Spotted Puffer". Among
individual T. nigroviridis, some may be longer, rounder, have eyes that are set
back further or have stubbier noses - but these fish are all one in the same. T.
fluviatilis (commonly called Green, Topaz, or Ceylon puffers) looks like a cross
between a Figure Eight Puffer (T. biocellatus) and Green Spotted Puffer (T.
nigroviridis). Their backs have the yellow markings of a Figure Eight and the
sides of the fish are spotted like the Green Spotted Puffer. If you have a
Puffer that you thought was a Figure Eight but has grown much larger than 2
½-3”, it is probably T. fluviatilis.
So next time you are at your LFS and a cute-looking, yellow and black spotted fish is looking back at you, begging like a puppy dog to take him home, you’ll know everything you need to keep your pet happy and healthy for a very long time…