Is there any fish more recognizable and awkward looking as the pufferfish? My guess is no. Both when puffed and when in a normal state, the pufferfish just looks silly. But silly animals are often quite intriguing, and this is certainly true of the pufferfish.
Pufferfish make up the family Tetraodontidae, which contains over 120 species of fish. They live in diverse habitats, though most puffers live in shallow coastal areas or estuaries. They are generally found in tropical waters, with some species living in temperate climes. Freshwater species can be found in South America, central Africa, and southeast Asia.
They are usually small to medium-sized fish, though some species can reach quite large sizes of over 100 cm. The teeth of the pufferfish are fused together to form two plates in their mouth, which the fish uses to break open shells of their prey. Although all pufferfish have spines, they are often quite small and cannot been seen if the fish is in a non-puffed state.
Pufferfish are not particularly fast swimmers, and so must rely on a number of ways to avoid predators. A pufferfish’s eyes can move independently of each other, and the fish has very good vision, so it can spot predators from a safe distance. If the fish does get attacked, it uses its tail to give it a quick burst of speed that often succeeds in avoiding the predator. Of course, if this doesn’t work, the pufferfish will do what makes it so famous – it will puff. The fish fills its stomach with water, which makes it expand into a spiky, large sphere. I don’t know about you, but if I was a predator, that would not look too appetizing.
If blowing itself into a balloon still doesn’t deter predators, the fish has one last defence: poison. Many pufferfish contain the potent neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, which is usually found in abundance in the fish’s liver and ovaries. Consuming a pufferfish can kill humans, though some large ocean predators are not as affected by the toxin. Still, the combination of these three defences make puffers a target most predators probably prefer to avoid. I know I would.
Reproduction varies among species of puffer, with some species having courtship rituals and others simply laying their eggs in the presence of a male. Most species leave their eggs to fend for themselves, though a few have some parental care. In these species, the male guards the eggs, and blows water over the eggs to give them a fresh supply of oxygen.
I’m sure most people have heard of fugu, the prepared meat of a pufferfish that is a delicacy in Japan. The consumption of fugu can cause death if it is prepared improperly, and even if prepared well it often leads to intoxication and light-headedness (which some people enjoy, so they purposely eat fugu). I don’t think I’ll ever try fugu. I’d be way too scared.
Cover image by By Zinnmann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0