The Aquarium Encyclopedia, Sterba Puffer Fish Lair

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The Aquarium Encyclopedia
Edited by: Gunther Sterba, English Edition by Dick Mills
Photography: A. Van Den Nieuwenhuizen
World Copyright 1978, This Edition 1986, Published by The MIT Press

Note: * denotes another entry in the encyclopedia. Abbreviations as follows:

D = dorsal fin

Coh = cohort

D1 = 1st dorsal fin

O = order

D2 = 2nd dorsal fin or adipose fin

Sub-O = Sub-order

C = caudal or tail fin

Ga = genera

An = Anal Fin

F = Family

V = ventral fin

G = genus

P = Pectoral fin


Tetraodon. LINNAEUS, 1758. G of the Tetraodontidae*
Contains species that live in the fresh waters and coastal areas of tropical Africa, SE Asia, Australia and the Philippines. Some live in pure fresh water (T. mbu, T. schoutedeni, T. miurus, etc.) whereas others also live in brackish water (e.g. T. cutcutia, T. fluviatilis, T. palembangensis). Tetraodon species are territorial fish, prone to biting. The eat small animals, using their strong dental plates to crush molluscs, crustaceans and insect larvae; T. mirius especially likes to prey on smaller fish.

The species of Tetraodon have a typical family build and they are between 8 and 75 cm long. Many have small soft spines in their leathery skin which they can erect by puffing themselves up. (T. fluviatilis, T. palembangensis, T. leiurus, etc.). An important recognition feature is the number and shape of the tentacles around the nose. Within the G, there are both substrate spawners (T. cutcutia, T. fluviatilis, T. leiurus brevirostris) and open water spawners like T. schoutedeni, in which 1-2 males bite firmly onto the ventral side of the female during the spawning act.

Pufferfishes are extremely charming and long lived members of an aquarium - they even get to know their keepers ‘personally’ sometimes. Some individual T. fluviatilis specimens have been known to live for 9 years in the aquarium. Apart from the pure freshwater species from Africa that require water that is not too hard and a bit peaty, most of the others are happiest in hard, slightly alkali water or even brackish water. A particular problem with this G is that many of the species are intolerant of one another, and some also of other species. They can give quite a painful nip, and despite their plumpish build they are quite agile.

They should be fed with all kinds of animal food, especially hard shelled food like snails, plus mealworms and earthworms; usually, feeding should present no problems. A lack of desire to eat. discolouration (the black colour noticeable on the ventral side), continual curving around of the tail and emaciation are typical disease symptoms. In a lot of cases, the specimens are cured by putting them into brackish water.
In many specimens the teeth start to grow abnormally; they can be cut off carefully using a sharpened pair of fine nail clippers, or similar.

Some of the species have been bred successfully (T. cutcutia, T. leiurus brevirostris, T. fluviatilis, T. schoutedeni). The substrate spawners lay their eggs on rocks. There are about 200-300 eggs with T. cutcutia, 300-500 with T. leiurus brevirostris. As far as we know, only the males carry out brood care. With T. leiurus, care ends with the hatching of the fry, but with the other species mentioned, the males still guard the youngsters and keep them safely in shallow grooves. Infusorians
, nauplii (Cyclops, Artemia), rotifers and microworms (Tubatrix*) etc. are suitable foods for rearing them on. The young fish are still tolerant of one another, unlike the older specimens that form territories. The young even form groups sometimes, e.g. T. leiurus brevirostris. The following species are imported fairly often:

-T. cutcutia (
HAMILTON-BUCHANAN, 1822); Common Pufferfish, Globefish. From SE Asia, Malaysian Archipelago, where it lives in fresh and brackish water. Length to 8 cm. No spines on the skin. Nasal tentacles undivided. Grey-yellow with fairly dark flecks and a fine honeycomb patterning.

-T. fluviatilis (
HAMILTON-BUCHANAN, 1812); Green puffer, Figure Eight Puffer. From SE Asia, Malaysian Archipelago, the Philippines where it lives in fresh and brackish water. Length to 17 cm. Short forked nasal tentacles. Yellow-green with very variable dark dots and bands. Mostly fairly peaceful. Leaves small fishes unmolested.

-T. leiurus brevirostris (
BENL, 1957). From Thailand (?). Length to 12 cm. Snout short and truncated. Each nasal slit bears a tentacle That is divided at the end into 2 lips. Spiny skin. Grey-yellow with a dense covering of dark flecks. During the spawning act, the flecks are pale on a dark background. Prone to biting. A sub-species of T. leiurus leiurus BLEEKER, 1850.

-T. mbu
BOULENGER, 1899; Gold-ringed puffer. From the Congo, only found in fresh water. Length to 75 cm. Fairly elongate. 2 nasal tentacles in each slit, divided like a fork. Head and body covered with fine spines. Dorsal surface and flanks covered in dark, worm-like lines on a yellow to orange background colour. When young, has large dots.

-T. mirius
BOULENGER, 1902; Valise Puffer. From the Congo, only found in fresh water. Length to 15 cm. Eyes small, directed upwards. Has a striking capacity for changing colour, usually patterned in brownish/sandy colours. Buries itself into the sand up to its eyes. Very prone to biting. Eats small fish.

-T. palembangensis
BLEEKER, 1852; Figure Eight Puffer. From Thailand, Sumatra, Kalimantan (Borneo), where it lives in fresh and brackish water. Length to 20 cm. There is a nasal tentacle on both sides. Upper side of the body dark with yellow or green patterns of stripes that form a closed ring below the D. Survives better in brackish and sea water than it does in pure fresh water.

-T. schoutedeni
PELLEGRIN, 1926; Leopard Puffer. From the lower Congo, only in fresh water. Female 10 cm, male smaller. Similar to T. fluviatilis. 2 long, forked nasal tentacles on both sides. Dark dots on an ochre-coloured background. One of the most peaceful of Pufferfishes!

Tetraodontidae; Pufferfishes Family of the Tetraodontiformes*, Sub-O Tetraodontoidei. Found in warm seas, in brackish water, and a very few in fresh water. Pufferfishes have an oblong shape and the caudal peduncle is elongated to a greater or lesser extent. Mouth small with ridges of teeth on the jaws which add up to form a kind of beak that always protrudes slightly; the beak consists of teeth that are fused. There is a suture between the right and left tooth ridge of the upper and lower jaw, which is where the name Tetraodontidae comes from (= four toothed).

Pufferfishes move by using their Ps like a propeller, sometimes also the short D and An. The rounded C is only used for steering, in conjunction with the caudal peduncle. No Vs. Skin naked or covered with triaxial spines which are laid down, pointing backwards, when at rest. The Tetraodontidae glide peacefully through the water and are very agile; they can also turn on the spot or swim backwards. All Pufferfishes have a special extension of the stomach which spreads to below the skin of the breast and belly areas; when danger threatens, it can be filled with water or air, and at the same time, the spines become erect. This makes the fish look bigger in the eyes of a potential attacker, and it can also blow the water it has taken in towards its enemy.

Pufferfishes often blow themselves up like this when they are trapped in a net. The flesh of many species contains the well-known tetraodotoxin- a strong nerve poison. Pufferfishes are very important in aquarium-keeping. See under the Ga Arothron*, Canthigaster*, Carinotetraodon*, Colomesus*, Tetraodon*. You will also find further details there about their biology.

Tetraodontiformes; Pufferfish-types. O of the Osteichthyes*, Coh Teleostei. Also known as the O Plectognathi, this O embraces a whole series of Fs, some of which at first sight seem to have no similarities. Nevertheless, they do form a relatively uniform group. This is difficult to prove from any external features and demands comparison studies of the skeleton, particularly of the skull. Here, a fusion of the premaxilla and maxilla is only hinted at, there are no parietal bones and the number of vertebrae is small.

From the outside, features to note are the very small, non-protrusible mouth and small, hole-shaped gill slits. The individual groups also have certain parallels in behaviour patterns. The jaws may carry individual teeth or beak-like teeth-ridges. Often, the Vs are missing and with them also the pelvic bones. The skin may be scaled or naked, or it may be covered with large spines or bony plates.

Nearly all Tetraodontiformes live in tropical and sub-tropical seas
, with only a few species from fresh water areas. The Tetraodontiformes are related to the Acanthuroidei*, and the oldest fossils date from the early Tertiary period. GREENWOOD and colleagues (1966) distinguish between 2 Sub-Os, the Balistoidei containing the Fs Balistidae*, Ostraciontidae*, Triacanthidae* and the Tetraodontoidei containing the Fs Diodontidae*, Molidae*, Tetraodontidae* and Triodontidae*, See also the system under the heading Osteichthyes.

Carinotetraodon
BENL, 1957. G of Tetraodontidae*. One well-known species in fresh water of South East Asia. The males of these Pufferfish (which in other respects have a typical shape of their family) erect during display a comb-like crest along their back and a sharp ventral keel like the marine species of the G Canthigaster*. They are territory-forming and therefore incompatible with members of their own species and also, to some extent, with other fish. The small fish are very suitable for keeping in aquaria. Breeding has been successful. Both parents care for the young.

-C. lorteti (
TIRANT, 1885) (C. somphongsi, name not in current usage); Comb Pufferfish. Thailand, in fresh water. To 6.5 cm. Males greyish yellow with blue C; females more varied in colour, mainly plain yellowish with irregular dark spots.

Colomesus
FOWLER, 1911. G of Tetraodontidae*. The habitat of Colomesus is tropical S. America, where they live in fresh water and brackish waters. They reach a size of up to 20 cm. Their shape is typical of their family. They are fairly timid fish in the aquarium and need plenty of oxygen. Nothing is known about their reproduction. The species imported most is:
-C. psittacus (
SCHNEIDER, 1801); Parrot Pufferfish. West Indies, Amazon Basin. To 20 cm. Back olive-green with 6 black saddle markings. Stomach whitish.

Disease in Puffer fish is seldom this simple. Hopefully in the near future I will be able to provide some symptom charts and medicines that have had good results.
If this procedure is to be attempted, various safely measures should be taken. Wear thick rubber gloves that have never been used with soap or cleaning chemicals. They will protect your hands from the business end of the fish, and your skin from possible absorption of the tetraodotoxin should the fish become distressed enough to excrete it from the skin. Also, moving the fish in a separate container is recommended, this way you can place the container and fish at the most advantageous position. The container will also prevent any tetrodotoxin released from the puffer from being in the main tank. Not all species can release the poison from the skin apparently, but it is best to take precautions as it will also affect the puffer if concentrated in the tank water.. Larger species have been known to sever digits from unsuspecting sushi chefs.
There has been mention of some infusoria and paramecium that are bad for puffer fish fry. There can be aggressive organisms that can kill the fry. Suggestion has been made to acquire African paramecium, local breeders may be a good source for a starter culture.
The Figure Eight name has been erroneously connected with T. fluviatilis, I have seen this many times, and it would seem that somewhere along the line it was used with this species, and the error has been perpetuated. T. palembangensis, T. biocellatus, T. steindachneri are the species commonly associated with the Figure Eight name. T. palembangensis is actually a completely different species in form, having the appearance of the T. suvattii and T. miurus. The common species confused with T. fluviatilis are Tetraodon nigroviridis (or nigrifilis), and T. schoutedeni, as all are spotted on a green or yellow background. Variations between these are hotly debated, with perhaps T. schoutedeni being the easier to separately identify, and much debate over whether the other species names are the same animal or not.
There are species found in cold water seas, Eastern US seaboard and the English Channel are examples.
The Dwarf Puffer is recently available to aquarists: Tetraodon travancorius, AKA Carinotetraodon travancorius, and Carinotetraodon imitator. They are hard to tell apart, see link to Erwin Schramml’s page. These species also have the comb on the belly, and a corresponding stripe when in display mode. Originally classified as Monotretus travancorius, they have been reclassified once into the G Tetraodon, and now proposed into Carinotetraodon.
Colomesus asellus is perhaps more common of an import now. Commonly called a South American (SA) or Brazilian.