Ask the WWM Crew
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I find myself usually drawn back to the same conversation, how great they are, how enjoyable to care for and their interesting personality and intelligence. If I were any more excited I might even have a photo of them in my wallet. Pufferfish; these are the subject of my repartee. With all my chat about them it didn't take long for a good friend of mine to perk up and wonder about one for his own tank. With a couple of quick photos I had him saying "Wow". A short time later he purchased his first pufferfish, a Porcupine Puffer to be exact. Little "Porky" quickly became part of the family, and once again, I added another to the puffer-addict group.
That was just one of the varieties of puffers that can be found around the world. Though a vast difference in outward appearance, the puffer family is relatively small. Many scientists believe that there maybe as little as 150 species of puffer in the entire animal kingdom. Which might sound like quite a bit, but compared to other animals, say Cichlids, which have over a thousand documented species, or even corals which have tens of thousands, puffers seem a small little family. The reason I find the number shockingly low is that they have such a large worldwide distribution, and are found in almost every sort of water conditions known to man. Environments from tropical freshwaters to deep ocean reefs and everywhere in between. It would take me eons to try to describe that many puffers so felt it best to narrow my discussion to the Saltwater Varieties. Namely the larger bodied species, such as the Porcupine Puffer (Diodon holacanthus), The Dog Faced Puffer (Arothron nigropunctatus). Also, I'll explain the smaller bodied puffers (often referred to as Tobies) such as Valentini puffer (Canthigaster valentini). I'm going to try and give you straight forward information dealing with the species, their taxonomy, care tips, and other info that any person possibly interested in these animals should know before getting one of them for their tank.
As soon as one looks at a pufferfish you notice something is quite different amongst other fish you have seen. They seem to hover about in their tanks, looking distinctly like the love child of a Humming bird and a golf-ball. Their bodies are usually on the bulkier side of the fish world spectrum. Many of them look like a football or blimp with fins and eyes. These animals are scaleless, and most of them have spines on their bodies, though are not always present when the fish is not inflated. Puffers get their common name from their unique defensive ability to inflate their bodies with water when threatened by a predator.
An alternative name for a puffer is "blowfish", which many believe stems from the more active hunting puffers that characteristically squirt jets of water from their mouth at the sand and substrate to uncover any sort of potential prey that's buried beneath. This "blowing a stream of water" is often times documented in captivity, but rather than the puffer squirting the sand, it ends up squirting the water from the surface, usually the target is the owner. I only mention this so that you aren't befuddled when you are hit in the face with a stream of saltwater when attempting to feed your puffer.
Another common name for a Pufferfish (at least the spiny varieties) is "Balloonfish". The biggest aspect about a puffer is of course it's ability to "puff up"! When you are looking at a puffer in it's relaxed state it's hard to believe that the little thing can just about triple (yes triple) it's size in a very short amount of time. But, when the puffer is threatened in nature, it's defensive mechanism is a hard thing to swallow (pun intended). The fish's body begins swelling up until the fish is just about a complete rigid sphere. The attacker is either surprised by the suddenly large animal in front of it, or it simply realizes that it will no longer be able to fit it into it's mouth. (Not to mention all sorts of spines now pointing in every direction). Quite a well-designed discouragement to any would be attacker. Scientist at the University of Massachusetts studied the way in which a Pufferfish actually does inflate itself. The fish evolved with an interesting group of muscles that actually pump water into the stomach of the fish. The Puffer stomach is another amazing feat of evolution; it is not like any other animals' stomach in the world. This one is able to expand over a hundred times it original volume. This is only made possible by the fact that a puffer's stomach is pleated, like a skirt. With this pleated nature of the stomach an astonishing amount of material and added surface area can be hidden within the pleats. An example given by the university to help you visualize this, is that a typical Scottish kilt is made using about 8 yards of fabric, whereas the typical Scotsman is only about a yard in circumference. All those pleats hide the true size of the fabric. But, the stomach of a puffer is much more complex that the kilt. The largest pleat in a puffer's stomach might only be three millimeters wide, but that pleat has smaller folds inside it, and that one has smaller inside, and it goes on and one like that. The smallest pleats need to be viewed under a powerful microscope to be seen. Another question pops up, what happens to the other parts of the puffer's body when it becomes inflated. Well, luckily nature was thinking of that as well, the spine of a puffer has a natural upside-down U shape to it. So, when the puffer's stomach inflates, the spine simply bends a little more. So, as the fish is fully "puffed", all you really see is a mouth, a pair of eyes, a few fins, and spines poking out.
This is probably the best point to mention the skin of the puffer. Like stated above Puffers are a scaleless fish, which is rather straight forward in it's description. It means, that the fish has no scales covering it's skin. In fact puffers don't have just one layer of skin, they actually have two. The skin of a fully inflated puffer is unquestionable stretched compared to when it's in it's relaxed state. In fact some of the larger breeds skin is stretched more than one and a half to two times it's normal length. But, while the skin has to be very elastic to allow the fish to puff up, the fish also needs it's skin to be strong enough to allow it to be in a rigid ball. This is another area where the puffer evolved pleats, this time not on the stomach, but on the inner layer of skin. The inner layer is like that Scotsman's kilt, pleated and when the fish inflates the skin extends and becomes quite stiff. But, deflated it's another story, the skin would make the fish a very ineffective swimmer. The pleats would cause an enormous amount of drag, and causing a horrible waste of energy to swim. That is why the nice elastic outer layer had evolved, to streamline and smooth the puffer for better swimming. (And to make it look less like a swimming raisin...)
The puffer's gills are not as pronounced as many fish, but more like a nostril opening near their pectoral fins. This is due to the extremely developed jaw muscles used in unison with the teeth to eat hard-shelled prey. Also, with the development of the jaws and teeth, it gave very little room for an olfactory system. Which is the reason many species in the brackish and marine varieties tend to have odd adornments near their nostril openings. These are thought to be somewhat like extensions to the nasal area, an attempt to keep the amount of surface area for the nose to be able to sense smell.
The hummingbird analogy, this is one of the "cuter" traits of puffers. They have this amazing ability to hover in a spot, and then move left to right, up and down, and even forwards and backwards with seemingly little motion to their bodies. Unlike most other fish you have seen, these animals have lost their pelvic fins through evolution. Instead of using it's caudal fin (tail fin) as the main way of swimming through the water, most of the normal swimming that this fish does is accomplish by it's somewhat transparent pectoral fins. It's thanks to these buzzing little fins that these fish move about in the X, Y, and Z-axis. Along with their pectoral fins, they also gain a little extra guidance from their dorsal and anal fins. With these fins working so well, the caudal fin merely acts as a rudder for the fish. This is not to say that these fish are incapable of swimming using their tail fins, I've witnessed many puffers use their tails for a quick burst of speed to either nab some prey, or to get away from an aggressor. Puffers are classified as fin nippers. Meaning that they will take bits out of the fins of competitors or other tankmates. The reason being is that if a puffer in nature would want to fight off another puffer for territory or possibly a rival mate it will attack the fins. If a puffer should lose any of it's fins, it's ability to swim/survive would be severely hindered, and the winning puffer is free to swim around and keep it's territory.
The eyes of a pufferfish are able to move independently of each other, so they are constantly looking around in all directions. That is until they spot food, where upon both their eyes lock on to the target. Not only does this binocular vision help the puffer nab crustaceans and snails, but gives the puffer a much more personable look to it. With the two eyes and beaked mouth, it gives the impression of a humanistic face. Another note dealing with puffer's eyes, is that many puffers show an iridescence on their corneas, usually blue-green coloration (though, some of the brackish fish have shown green-yellow). Scientist really aren't sure what this coloration is for, most likely it is a light control measure, so it doesn't let too much light into the eye.
This is a point that I would really like to stress to a person purchasing a puffer. Everyone knows that a quarantine tank is a necessity to a healthy tank, but I feel that puffers need this much more than other fish. These fish are very territorial in nature, and the shipping process is not very kind. They lump many fish into very small bags, and puffers have some very powerful teeth and jaws, which can inflict severe damage. That is not a very good mix to an aggressive and territorial animal. Many times I have seen shipments of porcupine puffers come in with a smaller individual having multiple bite marks on its body, missing almost all it's fins, and or having extensive damage to it's eyes. Luckily these puffers are extremely fast healing animals, so once the injured fish is separated from the bully, then the healing process shouldn't take that long. I must ask you to please don't give in to the rescue mentality, or "it needs help" syndrome when buying puffers. This is a hard thing to overcome, and I am guilty of doing this more times that I care to mention. You just have to realize that though many puffers do bounce back just fine, if a puffer is severely stressed from injury, even the best care won't help it survive. Another observation that tends to stress the need for QT is the fact that puffers have a tendency to have internal parasites, be it nematodes, or digestive parasites. A possible reason for that is the diet that puffers have in the wild, many of the crustacean and snails often have parasites in/on them. Another possibility is that the scaleless bodies, which allows them the flexibility to puff up, doesn't have the protective scales that many other fish have. Thus leaving them more vulnerable from pests that attach to, or burrow into the skin. Many of these pests may be noticeable under the layers of skin. Nematodes will look like odd bumps or curved protrusions from the skin. Though this is really an untreatable condition for most fish, this quarantine simply stops the spread of the parasite to your main tank. And if caught early, you might be able to get reimbursement or an exchange from your LFS (though, don't count on it). The best reason for having your puffer in a QT, aside from stopping the spread of disease, is this gives you a great opportunity to learn the personality and feeding habits of your new puffer. The puffer will become accustomed to you quickly, and learn that you will be the one feeding it. It was during the quarantine times that I, as well as most other puffer owners had discovered which fish had the best personality.
Choosing and Acclimating Your New Puffer
If you are curious as to what to be looking for in a healthy puffer then let me say that it's not a real mystery. Puffers appearance can change with their moods, so there is no real stable coloration you should be looking for in a species. Most puffers will have a paler coloration to them when they are resting, sometimes referred to as their "sleep coloration". Typically their markings seem washed out, or the color is not very well pronounced. This same sleep coloration is often shown when the fish is sick or if it's stressed. If you have a normally darker colored puffer and it turns lighter shades, that could be a sign it's stressed. Like in the case of many porcupine puffers, when they are sick you will find them with creepy white body coloration. Though, with many of the other breeds, like the dog-faced puffer, the body actually turns dark brown to even black when it's extremely stressed. Another sign to see if you puffer is healthy is to look at it's tail fin. A healthy puffer will have its caudal fin out behind it, and many times the tail fanned out. A sick or stressed puffer will fold their caudal fin alongside their body. This trait can be seen while the puffer is sleeping, or if they are forced to live with a more aggressive species of fish. So, that many of the experts feel that this is a submissive signal like a dog tucking his tail between his legs.
I would like to also add that Puffers are very long-lived fish. Even in captivity, they easily go over 10 years with proper care. Many of the smaller brackish varieties have been recorded to 18 years of age. Larger marine varieties have been seen in their twenties! Keep this in mind that the puffer you have now will be with you for a long time. So, take good care of it.
Disease and Health Concerns
I find that most puffers are very hardy fish, provided that you start with a healthy specimen. You must be careful when moving your puffers into their new homes, because of multiple reasons. If a fish has been stressed during shipping, or if it didn't receive the proper care in the LFS than it might have shed part of it's poisonous slime coating (read below for more info on Poisons), which is now mixed into the water. If this poison should get into your QT or even your Main Tank, then it could possible kill off parts if not all of your tank. So, "an ounce of prevention" is needed here, and you will have to keep with the rule of never mixing the LFS water in with your tank. Pouring off a majority of the bag water and mixing in water from the tank 3 to 4 times over a course of 30 minutes can dilute the poisons. This should acclimate your puffer nicely to it's new water parameters. Then simply pour the now-diluted water and puffer into your tank, AVOID netting. Netting can be harmful, and possibly fatal to your puffer. Puffers' ability to inflate their stomachs is not limited to water, when raised into the air; you run the risk of the puffer inflating himself with a stomach full of air. Which is not a good thing, many puffers have difficulties expelling trapped air. Those puffers that can't release the air can actually become stressed enough that they perish. If your puffer does become inflated with air, there is a method of helping it release it. Which needs steady but gentle hands. You will have to hold the puffer with your hands, with it's head facing up, then begin to gently massage the belly of the fish upwards to it's chin. This will help the valves release and the air to escape from the upward facing puffer's mouth. Another issue with netting your puffer is that if the puffer should inflate while in the net, it can harm itself from the constrictive net. Or, with the spiny varieties, the net can become entangled on the puffer's body making it near impossible to remove the fish. I once had to assist a store employee that had a Porcupine puffer caught in a net at the store. The only way to save the puffer was to cut the net off in little pieces... Waste of a good net and stressed the fish more than it should. A simple way to avoid this problem is to use a larger net with finer meshing, as well as placing a clean bag inside the net to catch the puffer. Once the puffer is partially in the net, simply grab the bag and lift it out of the water. This ensures the puffer can not become entangled in the net, while it also prevents it from ingesting air if it should inflate.
Many books state that puffers are susceptible to Cryptocaryon and Amyloodinium, but, I have never had any of my puffers suffer from these maladies. Keep the tank parameters in check, and try not to overfeed them and the puffer should stay very healthy. Puffers respond well to almost every available medication, though caution should be taken with copper-based meds.
Special Puffer Concern
All Puffers are classified as Predators. Which wouldn't take that much convincing the next time you look at the mouth of a Puffer. The teeth of a puffer is such a distinct evolutionary addition that it is how the puffer came to get it's Latin name Tetraodontidae, "Tetra" meaning Four, and "Dontid" meaning Teeth. They have a fusion of teeth into four distinct bony plates in their mouth. Two upper and two lower and combined with their awesome jaw strength allows them to crush the hardest of shells, or bones of their prey. Another interesting aspect of these puffers' teeth is that they continually grow throughout the fish's life. This is a great idea for the puffer in the wild, where it eats hard-shelled crabs, snails, and crustaceans all the time. The constant wearing on the teeth would have the puffer with no teeth in a short amount of time. So, the puffer evolved with teeth that grow to keep up with the continual wear. The idea is not quite as good though to a puffer in an aquarium, where the cost of live hard shelled foods like shrimp, crabs, clams, and snails make it impossible for an aquarist to afford to feed such a creature. Luckily this fish is so quick to accept food that it can easily be kept with standard frozen or store bought foods. Supplemental feedings of hard-shelled foods can take care of the ever-growing teeth. Anyone, who has ever owned a rabbit or mouse, know that teeth that continue to grow, will eventually cause difficulty in eating if gone unchecked. I have found many different puffers dropped off at local fish stores because they "refused to eat" or that "something was wrong with its teeth". Sure enough, the fishes teeth had grown so large that it was no long able to get the food into it's mouth. These are extreme cases of "neglect", and I use that term not to mean a brutal mistreatment of the animal, but of neglect on the owner's part to not doing their research. Many times in a case that extreme, you will have to manually grind or clip the puffer's teeth down. This can be done with a file, or a pair of nail clippers. But, this usually stresses the fish out, and with a case where a puffer hadn't eaten in a while, it might prove fatal. I've gotten lucky many times by trying the hard-shelled approach first, by placing in small pond snails, and clamshells. The puffer was able to gradually grind back it's teeth enough to allow it to eat again. In most cases though if the puffer is unable to eat it's normal food, the only course of action would be to grind the teeth down by hand, or using nail clippers on smaller species.
Often you hear about the poisons found in many of the species of pufferfish in the aquarium trade. Not to lesson anyone trust in my expertise, it was this sort of "possibly dangerous" mystique that turned me towards raising and caring for the Tetraodontidae/Diodontidae family. When I started out raising the freshwater and brackish varieties of puffers I was so nervous about any sort of puffer poison mishap that I would use plastic bags, rather than nets, to catch the puffers, and even purchased a pair of gloves. This was all just to avoid any sort of direct contact. Now, I had read info stating that puffers couldn't sting you, it was a poison that did you in, and only if you ate the little thing. But, it still didn't stop my brain from thinking "what if..." The somewhat fad of pufferfish hadn't even begun yet, and I was quite surprised and the lack of information on the web. But, since I'm writing this article after years of raising puffers, it seems that my fears were a bit unfounded. In fact, I've seen many people that could pet their puffers as if they were a cat or dog. None of them have ever died after doing this, so I believe that it's safe.
The toxin found in pufferfish is called Tetraodontin, which gets its name from the puffer, even though this toxic substance is found in many different species around the world. Creatures like the rough-skinned Newt, and many varieties of frog like the Harlequin frogs of central America, all have this located in the skin, thus making ingestion the only way of getting poisoned. But other creatures like the Blue-ringed Octopus, which delivers the same toxin, uses it's bite to do the job. As a special note, I would like to add in that this toxin is the main ingredient found in Voodoo Zombie Powder from Haiti. Also, this same stuff is responsible for over 150 human deaths last year in Japan. This is due to the Japanese tradition of eating of raw "fugu" pufferfish. Many people wonder why a person would risk eating something that could kill you. Is it just for the thrill, or is there another reason. People that I have talked with that have tried eating puffer, say that you gain an odd euphoric feeling after eating it. Your body gets a tingling sensation in the extremities, and you have a unique "high" sensation. Scientific reason for this; you are actually getting ultra small doses of neurotoxin, that is stunning your body and nervous system. Sort of takes the mystery and awe out of it now doesn't it…
As I mentioned above, there was very little info available to the aquarist in the past. Luckily websites are popping up more frequently as these impressive fish are finding their way into peoples homes. But, at the time I'm writing this there is only one book truly devoted to pufferfish, and it only deals with freshwater and brackish varieties, "The Puffers of Fresh and Brackish Water" by Dr. Klaus Ebert. Like the title suggests it doesn't deal with marine puffers at all, but it still is an interesting book to add to anyone's collection. As for other books dealing with Marine puffers, for the time being you will have to make due with the small sections in many of the general marine fish books on the market.
Puffers are generally very hardy fish, and relatively simple to care for. When looking at reference material in magazines and books, many times these fish are given a moderately difficult rating. I believe that the author is not referring to the tank and health conditions of the fish as difficult, but rather the specialized feeding that is needed. Many puffers I would easily recommend for even a (determined) beginner hobbyist. These fish are very forgiving of water conditions. They easily handle fluctuations in salinity, though as long as it's a gradual transition. Many of the larger marine puffers have been recorded traveling into heavily brackish tributaries in search of food. While many of the smaller breeds of puffer actually travel into fresher waters to breed. Since we are dealing with the saltwater varieties, then it's simply put; full marine salinity is needed for the long-term health of your puffer.
These fish are very messy eater and produce a large amount of waste. That is the reason that I suggest to get the largest tank allowable for the room you have. A powerful filtration system will also relieve the stress and worry about your puffers care. These fish are beggars, some of the best I have ever seen in aquariums. If anyone ever thought that their freshwater Oscars begged for food, then they obviously have never had a pufferfish. These things will eat and eat if allowed to, and all this food will mean the chances of water quality going downhill quickly. It's best to plan on doing substantial water changes on your tanks to help with the waste production of the fish. If a puffer is forced to live in a small tank and in poor water quality, then the puffer will end up having stunted growth, as well as severe health concerns like recurring ich, or skin problems.
Feeding your Puffer
When you get your new fish, many of them will not necessarily eat right away. It's best to not to feed them for 24 hours as they are getting settled in to their new tank. Though, this really doesn't apply to the porcupine puffer... Usually these fish adjust relatively quickly and will except food from you within a few hours of being introduced to their new home. I find that when many of the large breed puffers, especially porcupines, it's best with placing in live snails as the first feedings. This is what they no doubt ate before being captured, and helps them adjust much more quickly to accepting food from you. The puffers that we are discussing are active hunters, and an active hunting puffer in the wild tend to have more invertebrates in their diets rather than the less active breeds. But, luckily puffers will eat just about anything, and will quickly adapt to prepared foods. You will not be able to feed your puffer any sort of flake food; it might eat them, but don't expect to have a long-lived fish. This fish needs food with more substance, and without it this fish will not survive in captivity. Like stated before, puffers regularly need hard-shelled meals to wear down their ever-growing teeth. I've easily gotten small live ghost shrimp and varieties of live snails that are perfect to wear down the teeth of the puffers. This doesn't have to be a daily feeding, but plan on doing it at least twice to three times a week. Living food is not as important as the crunchy shell that is on them. You will also need to plan on feeding the puffer small mollusks, shrimp, and krill with their shells on them quite often. I find that if you are feeding live clams with their shells on, crack them with a nutcracker or pliers first so the puffer will be able to get a purchase on it. I use blocks of frozen brine shrimp as food, or Mysis shrimp, and then simply add in the extra foods like the cocktail shrimp, squid, and clams as a bonus to the puffer. Remember brine shrimp doesn't offer that much nutrition, so, you will need to supplement their diet with better foods. This seems to work the best, and most cost effective. All these things can be found (with the exception of Brine shrimp) at your local grocery store. People food is perfectly fine for your puffer, and I have never had any problem with the cheapest brands of seafood with my puffers. There is a seafood mix that is sold in many grocery stores that is perfect for feeding, it contains, shrimp, squids, octopus and all sorts of other sea creatures that your puffer will love to have. This mix is suppose to be used for humans to make seafood salads... But, it comes in a nice sealed bag and it can be kept chilled for quite some time. I would like to add that if the food becomes spoiled, please don't give it to your puffer; they can get sick just the same as you and I from bad food. Certain puffers have taste for food all their own, I've had puffers that loved clams, and other puffers that wouldn't even try it. So, this is something you will have to discover as you get more use to your puffer. A varied diet is the key to a happy and healthy puffer. When dealing with foods like shrimp, crab, crayfish, clams, shellfish be careful when buying uncooked items. It is a common trick in the food industry is to douse shrimp in chlorine to kill surface bacteria. This can be fatal to your fish & aquarium, so be sure to wash the food before serving it to your puffer. This goes for fresh, unfrozen items as well. A important note when feeding live Clams, Mollusks: Grocery stores or fish markets will often have clams that seal themselves up, but are still very much alive. Make a container full of fresh seawater and place the clams inside. They will open and flush wastes. If not, you might run the risk of getting your puffer sick.
In the wild puffers also will graze on algae and soft plants, though not a large part of it's diet, it is still a needed source of nutrients. A few species of puffers will graze on algae formed in the tank, if you are one of the lucky few with a puffer like that, then count your blessings. I find that the easiest way to ensure the puffer is getting plant nutrients is to feed the snails and crustaceans prior to feeding them to your puffer. These "gut-loaded" snacks will be ingested, and the puffer takes in the plant material. Other puffers, will take Algae wafers, while others will nibble at prepared green food, or collected live algae.
As puffers eat you will definitely notice a change in their bodies. When they eat, they quickly gain little potbellies. This is thanks to their stomachs which can expand to many times it's original size. I find it's best to have a puffer with a small potbelly after feeding has taken place. And, even though your puffer begs constantly do not fall for it and feed it every time you walk past the tank. I actually have had luck with feeding certain smaller breed puffers' large meals every other day. Though this is nothing like how they feed in nature. In the wild Puffers feed continually throughout the day, on whatever they can find. I had a few specimens that seemed to do best with a large feedings on one day, then place snails in the tank on the next day, rather than it's regular food, which was perfect schedule to grind it's teeth down. By feeding this way, it allows the puffers digestive process to work much more efficiently, and thus help controls the excess bioload from the waste. Since the fish is in such a small space and not swimming in the ocean, the idea that it has to feed continually is not a valid one. Typically the puffer in the wild would be settled on or near the bottom of the sea floor, simply watching with those independently moving eyes. They just rest there until they see something of interest they wish to investigate, or possibly a tasty morsel walking on by. These fish survive in the wild by pecking at small crustaceans and such throughout the entire day. In the wild they wouldn't suddenly get a handful of shrimp and clams placed in front of them like they are getting in the home tank. Puffers are one of the smartest fish known today, and believe it or not, that happy little dance they do that tricks us all into giving them "just a little snack" is actually a learned trait. If you were able to feed small portions a few times a day then it of course would be great, but do not feed large portions multiple times a day to your puffer. Even if it's begging for food, it will not be good for the puffer in the long run, and will quickly foul up the water. It's best to feed small amounts, and save large meaty meals to every other day or so. You have to ask yourself, are you capable of giving the puffer only a pinch of food multiple times a day, or will you look at it's puffer eyes and fall for it and give him more. With their expandable stomach, puffers can eat a large amount of food! I have never heard of a puffer eating itself to death, so the idea is that a puffer does know where it's limits are. The only reason I offer this info is so you don't get nervous if the puffer snags more food than you intended. Another issue that I would like to mention though, is that if you are going to use freeze dried or sun dried foods for your puffer (like shrimp or Krill) you will have to reconstitute them in water first. Because there is a small risk that a puffer could have problems and damage to the stomach due to the food swelling from the tank water.
Choose an area of the tank to feed the puffer, and make sure to feed the puffer from that area only. Puffers will become trained to take things from that area of the tank. This has multiple reason why it's a good idea. Many times puffers have become ill and owners soak the food in a medicine bath before feeding. And there have been reports of puffers turning down the food because of the smell of the medicine. Puffers are less likely to reject the food if it's offered from the same area all the time. It's the idea that they eat it before they realize that it might not have been food. Another good idea for this is that if you feel that your puffer will allow tankmates in the tank, having the puffer feeding from one area and the others from another area will have less aggression and fighting for food.
On to Species Specific Information
Large Bodied Species:
The Common Porcupine Puffers (Diodon holacanthus)
This is a very wide spread species of puffer, found in almost every major warm water ocean, Pacific, Indian, and the Atlantic Ocean. This is a member of the Diodontidae family, which also includes Burrfish. The separation between the Diodons and the Tetradons comes from the armored and spiny bodies of the Porcupine and Burrfish.
This is possibly one of the best puffers you can get for your tank. Providing that you are going to be getting a tank that is over 100 gallons. These spiny little buggers are very personable, and are real charmers. Once people raise one of these fish, they instantly fall in love and can not imagine not having one in their tank. If you are looking for a Pufferfish with more personality that most dogs and almost every cat, then this would be the puffer for you. They always are excited when you come into the door, and of course begging for food. Some owners even say that their puffer has a different reaction to different people. Thus, meaning that the fish is smart enough to recognize the difference in people.
Many times I'm contacted by people who ask me if their porcupine puffer would be okay with tankmates. This question seems very straight forward, but in actuality, it is one that I'm not qualified to answer. The reason is that porcupines are known for the fact that each fish has it's own unique personality. Some have lived with multiple tankmates and never had problems, while others have been known to eat a tankmate if it misses a single feeding. There have even been a few Porcs that I have seen that have never allowed any tankmates, though this is the not typically the case. The best person to make the decision if your puffer will allow tankmates is you, but you have to be completely honest with yourself at this point. Don't simply think that the puffer looks lonely so you want to get it a tank mate. If you are a responsible hobbyist, you will know your puffer the best! If you do think that your porcupine puffer will accept a tankmate (and the tank is large enough to accommodate this). Then here are the rules to picking your puffers roommates. The fish can not be extremely aggressive, no more than the puffer that is. A more aggressive tankmate will pester the puffer and might cause it to puff up frequently, which is unhealthy for the puffer. Also, stressed porcupine puffers have had reports of seeping some of the toxin into the water and killing other tankmates. Similarly aggressive fish can be okay, but have to be watched more carefully. Triggers can be kept with porc puffers. Such as the Black or Niger Trigger, these are some of the least aggressive of the trigger family. Some of the Picasso Triggers have been known to pester a Porc puffer. If getting a fish like a trigger Make sure that they are the same size, if either one is smaller than you have more chances of there being problems. A great trick is feed each from different sides of the tank. This helps curb any aggression over food. NO long finned fish, Like stated above puffers are fin nippers. And some just can't pass up the opportunity to nip at the fins of another tankmate. So, for that reason, you shouldn't keep any long finned fish like marine bettas or any sort of long finned Lionfish in with your porc puffer. It's safer to have fish that don't swim in the porcupine puffer's swimming area. Fish that swim very low to the bottom or many of the surface dwellers are great tank mates. If they don't get in the puffer's face then there is less risk of any problems between them. It should be quite obvious that any sort of snail or crustacean in the tank would not make a suitable tankmate for a puffer. I have heard a few reports that cleaner shrimp have been left alone in a puffer fishes tank, but this is a risk that you will have to take. I don't recommend it; chances are you simply purchased a rather expensive snack for your puffer. I met a man that got a Porcupine puffer simply to seek revenge on a large Mantis shrimp that kept eluding him in large tank. The Mantis had made a meal of just about everything in his tank, and after seeing one of my puffers demolish a crab, he thought he had found the perfect weapon for revenge. He and his wife returned the remaining fish from the tank, and purchased a medium sized Porcupine Puffer. They set it loose in the tank and waited to see what would happen. The next day they watched as the puffer spun around zoned in on a small crevice and blew a jet of water into it. A very surprised Mantis shrimp was blown out the other side... the puffer sort of looked at it's new owners... then went right over and bit the annoyance in half, much to the delight of it's new owners. From that point on they new that this was the pet for them. With it's puppy-like, and playful nature it quickly became the family's most treasured pet. They even upgraded it to a tank that was over 200 gallons because they enjoyed it so much. These are just one of the many people that formed strong attachments with their aquatic pet. An important note to mention here is that Porcupine puffers have another habit that any future owner should know about. These fish love to spray water out of the tank. They are like little fire hoses. So, remember to keep a sealed lid on your tank, and it's best not to have any expensive electronic equipment near there either. If you are looking for a fish with a personality, they you should look no further than the porcupine puffer. This is quite a long-lived species so, expect to have this fish for at least 15 years!
The Dog Faced Puffer (Arothron nigropunctatus)
If you are searching for a more gentle, shy puffer, then the Dogface is the perfect one for you. These puffers stay smaller than the larger Porcupine puffers. These rarely exceed 8 inches in captivity, though there have been some 9 inch specimens captured. It's a member of the "true" puffer family, Tetraodontidae. This breed of puffer can actually pout, or sulk if their feelings are hurt; it's one thing that you will have to see with your own eyes to believe. I saw this when an owner teased his puffer with a bit of shrimp. He put it on a stick and would place it in the water, then remove it before the puffer could grab it. He did this about 5 times before the puffer sank to the bottom of the tank... sat in the corner with his face pointing away from us. He wouldn't even respond to anything for a good 5-10 minutes. Finally it swam up and he was given the food, the puffer still seemed quite upset. It looked us both over pretty well before excepting the food. Unlike the Porcupine puffer, these guys are much more tolerant of other fish in their tank. In fact these puffers can be kept in a specialized community tank. Meaning they must be kept with fish close to their size, and with nothing aggressive. I have seen them with Tangs, Wrasses, and other similar sized fish with no problems. I have actually seen a few tanks, with dog-faces living in a semi-reef systems with large clowns and such, but in those cases, food was supplied very regularly, and the tanks had quite a bit of swimming room. The trick is to have fish that won't pester the quite solemn puffer. These puffers are also accepting of other puffers as tank mates, though the choices are limited to their closer cousins, like the "Stars & Stripes puffer" (A. Hispidus), or the "White-Spotted" puffer (A. Hispidus). It's not a good idea to have a dog-faced with porcupine puffers, due to the laid back nature of the dog-face. Another great feature with Dog-faced puffers is that they can come in a variety of colors: Grey, half-yellow, totally yellow and black. These puffers are very easy going on water conditions. High brackish to marine salinity is fine for them. Like all other large breeds, they will quickly adapt to eating prepared food.
Small bodied Species:
Valentini puffer often called Saddled Toby or Black saddled sharpnose puffer. These puffers tend to be much taller bodied than the larger breeds, and are unable to inflate to the size of the ones stated above. Only reaching about 3-4 inches in length, they make an ideal puffer for tanks of smaller sizes. Easily able to live comfortably in a 40 gallon tank or larger. Almost all of the sharpnosed breeds of puffers rarely exceed 4 inches in length. The smaller breeds have every bit as much personality as the larger breeds, though they do tend to be a bit more skittish at first. But, once they become accustomed to their new surroundings, and used to you feeding them, they will be active and playful fish. The smaller Tobies all have similar personalities, and the same care and feeding tips apply to them, as do the larger breeds. The only difference in the smaller breeds is that the Valentini tend to be the worst fin-nipping breed I have seen. Hence the reason I choose them to describe. Known for their fin-nipping ways, I usually don't suggest having a Valentini puffer in with tankmates with any sort of long fins. Shorter finned fish, as well as ones that tend to stay at the bottom of the tank (such as Blennies) are highly recommended. These fish also will nibble at any sort of crustacean in their tank, no matter what the size. I have seen Saddled Tobies pester a much larger hermit crab continually, even seeing them bite the eyes off of them, before they were moved to a different tank. Also, I have seen them sample a few corals, but this is not a standard among the breed. Caution is suggested with this breed. Try adding corals slowly to the tank, and make sure that the puffer is well fed, and chances are low that it will damage the corals. Many of the other breeds of sharpnose have been in semi-reef tanks with no issues known. It's best not to mix sharpnose puffers, unless a large tank is given. They will compete over foods, and have the chance of nipping each other's fins.
Well, there you have it, an overview of the Puffer world. I do hope
that this has helped people get an idea of what to expect when
purchasing a puffer for their tanks. I do like to end my articles, and
speeches dealing with puffers the same way. These are addictive fish,
once you get one you will quickly fall in love with their playful ways,
and endearing looks. These should not be an impulse purchase sort of
fish, they need special care. Don't try to keep a puffer in too
small of a tank, and please don't feel that a puffer
"needs" a tankmate. Get to know your puffer and set up a tank
that is right for it, not what you think is right for it. A happy and
healthy puffer will be with you for a long time, so take great care of
your puffer. These are truly the "Aqua-Dogs" of the aquarium
world, and trust me; these fish have offered the most rewards and
showings of affection than any other fish I have kept.