schoepfi (striped burrfish)
These are a few
pictures of a burrfish which I looked after for a friend for a
few days while he relocated. One of the first things he
did when I placed him in the tank was take a bite out of and
break the glass thermometer. A very inquisitive species.
Photos by Mike Iannibelli
information about this species
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
Order Tetraodontiformes (Plectognathi)
Superfamily Balistoidea; leatherjackets,
well named for
their tough skins.
Family Balistidae; the Triggerfishes, three dorsal spines.
Family Monacanthidae; the Filefishes, 1-2 dorsal spines.
Superfamily Ostracioidea (Ostracodermi).
Family Ostraciidae (Ostraciodontidae); Boxfishes.
Superfamily Tetraodontoidea; jaw-teeth fused into plates.
Family Triodontidae; The Three-Toothed Puffer.
Family Tetraodontidae; Puffers.
Subfamily Tetraodontinae; "True" Puffers.
Subfamily Canthigastrinae; Sharpnose Puffers, aka Tobies.
Family Diodontidae; Porcupine, Burrfishes.
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.
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.
"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.
are the Porcupine or Burrfishes; their inflatable bodies are
covered with spines that are may be either permanently erect
or folded down when the animal is non-inflated. There are six
genera, nineteen species in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific.
The two genera sold, Diodon and Chilomycterus
all make excellent, if often too large in ultimate size,
aquarium fishes with limitless spunk; much too nice to be just
made into dried hang-up novelties.
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
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
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 poisonesness. 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.
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
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
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.
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
the permission of Robert (Bob) Fenner webmaster