Pufferfish – The Underdog of the Reef

“One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish” is a great quote from Dr Suess that pretty much sums up the fish knowledge of the average person. Suffice it to say, but not many people know the difference between an angel fish and a butterfly fish. In fact, I would say that many people would sound just like Dr Suess if they were asked to identify fish on the reef. However, there are a few species which everyone can identify right away, such as the clown fish. Another instantly identifiable fish is the pufferfish. However, did you know there are more than 200 species of puffers?

Juvenile star pufferfish
Juvenile Star Pufferfish

Puffers Are Distinct

With more than 200 species in the Tetraodon family, there is a lot of variety in pufferfish. From the tiny “sharp nosed puffer” to the large “map puffer”, they range in size from a few centimeters to almost one meter in length. For the purposes of this article we also include the “porcupine pufferfish” as a puffer, although it’s not scientifically a member of the Tetraodon family. Not only do they live in the ocean, several species of pufferfish are also found in freshwater. In fact, the largest pufferfish is the “giant pufferfish” (Tetraodon mbu) which is found in rivers and lakes in Africa. They can be found throughout tropical oceans as well as in temperate waters but are not found in cold waters. In Indonesia, puffers are found everywhere and we encounter them on almost every dive or snorkel outing.

Yellow Box Fish Puffer
Juvenile Yellow Boxfish

How Pufferfish Move

At first glance, puffers are an awkward looking fish. With their rounded bellies and rugby ball shape, they don’t exactly resemble speedsters. Their small fins and round bodies mean they are slow moving fish who don’t actively chase prey. Their main diet consists of algae and invertebrates. They utilize their unique beak like mouth to crush the hard shells of clams and mussels in order to get to the meat.

Pufferfish Beak
Map Puffer with Strong Beak

How to Avoid Predators

Pufferfish have a unique ability when it comes to avoiding falling prey to predators. As they are slow moving, they have evolved different ways of defending themselves. As the name states, they are able to fill themselves with water in order to “puff up” into a large ball. They use this as their first line of defense to either surprise potential predators or make themselves too large to be eaten. Many of them also have stiff spines on their skin which help to fend off predators when puffed.

Everyone has probably seen a photo of a “puffed” up pufferfish at one time. One important thing to note though, they only “puff” when they feel threatened. Divers and swimmers who deliberately make them do this are actually harming the fish. This is poor diver behavior and should never be attempted.

Porcupine Pufferfish
Porcupine Pufferfish

As a secondary defense, they are also equipped with one of the most powerful toxins among fish life. The Tetrodotoxin neurotoxin is mainly found in their internal organs but many species also have it on their skin. This poison will cause a predator to spit out the puffer once it takes effect. The presence of this toxin is quite possibly why puffer fish are often so obvious on the reef. They don’t tend to flee like other species of fish as they know they are not on the menu for most predators. This is something to keep in mind if ever offered pufferfish to eat. The infamous Japanese “fugu sushi” has claimed a few victims over the years if not prepared correctly.

Where Do We Find Them?

Guinea Fowl Puffer
Guinea Fowl Puffer

Pufferfish are actually fairly easy to find. They live in a variety of eco-systems such as coral reefs, walls, and even sandy slopes. We encounter them during most of our dives and snorkel trips throughout Indonesia. Often we encounter larger species such as the “map” or “starry” puffers which often allow us to get close. The “guinea fowl” puffer is found on coral reefs and is always a favourite of guests, it resembles a puppy with it’s large eyes.

Are you interested in seeing this funny looking character? When you join Samata on a trip in Indonesia be sure to let us know. Tell your diving or snorkeling guide that you would love to see one and we are sure you will be as fascinated by their behaviour as we are!

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