Pufferfish may be the saltwater equivalent of Oscars. Pufferfish are known for their individual personalities and intelligence, traits that endear them to many hobbyists. On top of this, their general hardiness just adds to the appeal.
There are two families of fish commonly referred to as pufferfish. Tetraodontidae are known as ‘true puffers’, while the family Diodontidae are more correctly known as porcupinefish. A third family, Triodontidae, comprises only one species, the Three-tooth puffer (Triodon macropterus). The easiest way to tell pufferfish apart is by examining their teeth. True puffers have four teeth, while porcupinefish possess only two teeth fused into a powerful beak.
Pufferfish of the genus Canthigaster require a minimum tank size of at least 150 litres (33 gallons). The medium puffers, such as Arothron meleagris and Diodon holocanthus should be given a minimum tank size of 500 litres (110 gallons), however, double this size would be preferable long term. The Map puffer (Arothron mappa) and the Common porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix) require at least 1000 litres (220 gallons).
Being intelligent, pufferfish benefit from being housed in a complex environment. Ensure that there are plenty of hiding places in the form of live rock structures.
Pufferfish have immensely strong teeth which are designed to crush the shells of molluscs and invertebrates. However, those teeth can also cause damage to your equipment. Thermometers, heaters, filters and pump should all be placed in the sump to avoid the pufferfish damaging these vital pieces of equipment.
The larger pufferfish species demand efficient filtration due to their sheer bulk and large appetite. As a result of their large appetite pufferfish can generate large amounts of waste and contribute significantly to the amount of solid waste in a system. In order to combat this, highly effective and regularly cleaned mechanical filtration should be employed, alongside aggressive protein skimming. If you plan on keeping pufferfish chose a skimmer that is one size larger than you think you need. On top of this, pufferfish are messy eaters and will often tear food apart, leaving small fragments to drift throughout the aquarium. If there are no other fish to eat these scraps, then you should remove them yourself.
Pufferfish are known for possessing Tetrodotoxin, which is one of the most potent neurotoxins known to science. The toxin is found in the organs, such as the liver and ovaries, of the pufferfish. Interestingly, puffers raised in captivity seem to be non-toxic which suggests that the pufferfish acquire the toxin through their food in the wild.
When selecting a puffer ensure that it is active and alert. Check for torn fins and avoid any physically damaged fish. A damaged fish is more prone to infection and as pufferfish are vulnerable to parasitic infections, such as Cryptocaryon, damaged fish should be avoided.
While pufferfish are generally pretty hardy, they can be vulnerable to parasitic infections due to their thin, sensitive skin. However, such infections can be corrected using conventional copper-based treatments. Some species appear susceptible to eye infections, which may be the result of prolonged exposure to sub-optimal water quality.
When pufferfish are transported, most of the time they inflate themselves. It is advisable not to lift them out of the water, as they are known to take in air which can cause problems. You can avoid the need to lift them out of the water by capturing them in a net and then releasing them into a container suspended under the water before lifting them out. Transporting them in a container, rather than a bag, is also advisable as pufferfish can puncture bags with their spines and even bite through the corners of the bag.
Once again, keep in mind that pufferfish have sensitive skin. This makes them susceptible to damage during movement. It is also unwise to transport them in the same container/bag cleaner wrasses (Labroides spp.), as an overzealous cleaner wrasse can cause nasty wounds.
Larger pufferfish can be extremely aggressive with members of the same or a similar species. Therefore, it would be wise to limit stocking to one member of each genus per tank. Pufferfish should be housed alongside other aggressive or semi-aggressive species. Larger tangs, groupers and eels are all suitable choices.
On the other hand, smaller puffers have a reputation for fin nipping, so should only be housed with suitably robust species. Once again, tangs, groupers, large angelfish and eels make suitable tank mates.
Here I would advise that you do your research with each individual species. Most pufferfish will not bother corals, however, they will eat clams and small invertebrates. Despite this, keeping pufferfish in a reef tank is still a hit and miss game. While there are certainly people who have successfully kept pufferfish in a reef tank, there are also others who have experienced heartbreak after a pufferfish destroyed their corals and ate all their invertebrates.
As a general rule, larger pufferfish and porcupinefish should never be kept in a reef setup. However, the sharp-nosed pufferfish may be worth the gamble. For the best chance of success avoid SPS corals, smaller brittle stars and other bite-sized invertebrates.
The Leopard sharp-nosed pufferfish (Canthigster leopard), Jewel pufferfish (Canthigaster solandri) and Valentini pufferfish (Canthigaster valentini) are the safest bets and should leave coral alone. However, all of these will eat small invertebrates.
The sharp-nosed pufferfish require frequent feeding. Chopped prawn, cockle, frozen Mysis, algal feeds and flake can be offered at least twice a day.
The larger species from the Arothron, Diodon and Chilomycterus genera should be fed less frequently. While juveniles can be fed several times a day, adults can be fed every other day.
The teeth of all pufferfish grow continually throughout their lives. In the wild the teeth are worn down by hard foods, such as cockles and mussels. These should be fed to the pufferfish on a regular basis in captivity to wear down their teeth. If the teeth are not worn down enough it can cause the pufferfish problems when it eats.
Pufferfish Species – Tetraodontidae
The Canthigaster genus comprises the sharp-nosed puffers which are easily identified by their elongated snout and streamlined bodies. These puffers are generally smaller and the best choice for smaller systems. As stated above, smaller puffers can be fin nippers so tank mates should not include species with trailing fins. Two members of this genus that are commonly encountered are the Jewel puffer (C. solandri) and the Valentini puffer (C. valentini), which both reach 11cm (4.3 inches). The Hawaiian puffer (C. jactator) grows to 9cm (3.5 inch) in length.
The dogface puffers of the Arothron genus all reach a considerable size, in terms of girth as well as length. The Spotted pufferfish (A. meleagris) and the Panda pufferfish (Arothron diadematus) both reach 20cm (8 inches) in length. The Map puffer (Arothron mappa) is a fast grower and will rapidly reach 60cm (2 feet) in length. Unless you have a huge system, with filtration to match, this species is best left along.
Porcupinefish Species – Diodontidae
The most frequently offered porcupinefish is the Long-spined (Diodon holocanthus) which reaches a maximum length of 30cm (12 inches). This species is prone to eye infections, which can lead to permanent blindness, so maintain good water quality to prevent such issues. Otherwise, this is a rewarding fish which should live for many years. The Common porcupinefish (D. hystrix) grows to a maximum length of nearly a metre (3.3 feet) in the wild, however, captive specimens are considerably smaller, most commonly reaching 30cm (12 inches).