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Puffer Proofing

By Text and Photos Kelly Jedlicki

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Puffers can exhibit both human and animal characteristics. When hobbyists acquire puffers, they have inherited fish that can exhibit characteristics of toddlers, dogs and cats. Prior to bringing home a puffer, thorough research to address their husbandry needs should be completed.

Puffers, like toddlers and cats, are very inquisitive and curious. They are intrigued with anything that dangles, vibrates or rotates. Things that can peak their interest include powerheads, electrical cords, thermometers and air line tubing. Puffers, like toddlers and dogs, will taste or bite anything at least once. Some may attribute this to being “stuck” in Freud’s oral stage of development.

Puffers and Equipment

Some pufferfish has beak-like teeth capable of powerful bites 
This Arothron reticularis has four fused teeth that form a beak capable of delivering a powerful bite.

The classic pufferfish is the porcupine-esque one
When you picture a pufferfish in your mind’s eye, perhaps this classic-looking porcupine puffer pose comes to mind.

Puffers prefer places they can feel safe such as crevices or ledges
Puffers prefer caves or rock ledges that they can squeeze into and feel secure. But sometimes they can knock loosely attached or unattached rockwork or coral formations over onto themselves and other fish.

Many items in a home aquarium can pose a grave danger for puffers. Air-driven sponge filters, which are often used in quarantine tanks, or sponges placed over the intakes of powerheads or pumps to protect fish from inadvertently getting stuck on them are not safe with puffers. Frequently, pieces of food may become caught or stuck on the sponge. This is an easy catch or meal for a puffer. The puffer will attack the food on the sponge and may inadvertently ingest sponge material with the food.

In the wild and in home aquariums, puffers will taste or eat live sponges off of live rock. While the sponges that grow naturally in the ocean can often be digested, the synthetic materials that are in the aquarium sponges cannot be digested. The sponge filter may be in the tank for days and then, one day, it is demolished. Sponge pieces may be chewed and spit out, which can lead to clogging of overflow boxes, powerheads and pumps. If ingested, sponge pieces can become lodged in the stomach or intestines and become a source for intestinal blockage.

Air line tubing, hoses and ceramic airstones are often a puffer’s target for destruction or damage in the aquarium. Many hobbyists rely on emergency battery operated air pumps with air line tubing and ceramic airstones to protect their aquariums in the event of a power outage. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion, tanks have suffered from lack of circulation and oxygen exchange because of puffer-induced damage or destruction of air line tubing and ceramic airstones.

Any pump or powerhead placed into an aquarium is a potential hazard, not only to puffers but also to hobbyists. Puffers can bite through or nick a power cord while “tasting” or “sampling.” They can actually damage the integrity of the pump and cause potential electrical stray voltage or electrocution. Damage to the intake or outflow portions can lead to impaired function. Puffers can destroy an entire pump in less than two hours.

Damaged or nonfunctioning pumps can lead to low oxygenation and suffocation of all the fish in the aquarium.

Water-motion devices or pumps that rotate are very intriguing to puffers, and they seem to be drawn to these. The intake caps, filters on pumps and powerheads are often the object of chewing as well.

Food pieces can become lodged on the intake filter cap. In an attempt to remove the food pieces, a puffer can dislodge or destroy them. This can lead to an inadvertent injury to the puffer or other fish that are pulled into the pump or powerhead. Ingested pump or filter cap parts have caused intestinal blockages and the demise of many puffers as well.

Puffer-Safe Substrate
Intestinal blockage can also be caused by the substrate in the aquarium. On numerous occasions, puffers have ingested crushed coral substrates and developed intestinal blockages. Unfortunately, many puffers have died from ingesting crushed coral and then not being able to pass it.

Crushed coral substrate is not a natural substrate for puffers. In nature, puffers will forage the sandy substrate in search of food. Sand can easily be blown out the gills or passed through the intestinal tract. Crushed coral is too large to be passed through the gills and must pass through the intestinal tract. It is abrasive as well as heavy. It will often sit in one area and will not pass. This often leads to a twisting of the stomach or intestines, which may contribute to an inability of food or digestive enzymes, often referred to as juices, to pass through the stomach and intestines.

The common porcupine puffer interacts with the keeper
Diodon holocanthus 

The golden puffer has two color schemes to the species
Arothron meleagris

Puffer Choices

First choices: These puffers adapt well to aquarium life. They will do well in tanks of at least 100 gallons. They all can grow to 12 inches in length.

  • Diodon holocanthus is commonly referred to as the porcupine puffer. It readily takes food and will become “interactive” with its keeper.
  • Arothron nigropunctatus is commonly referred to as the dogface puffer. They come in many color variations and patterns: gray with black spots, yellow bellies, solid black, gray or brown with black patterning. The latter mentioned ones come from the Solomon Islands and aren’t as hardy as the common gray-with-black-spots dogface.
  • A. immaculatus is commonly referred to as the immaculate puffer. These tend to bite fins of other puffers and they are likely to eat stationary invertebrates. They can grow to about 4 inches.
  • A. manilensis is commonly referred to as the striped puffer or narrow lined puffer. These readily adapt to tank life and prepared food.
  • Second choices: These puffers are commonly available. They all approach 20 inches in length and will require a tank of at least 180 gallons.
  • A. hispidus is commonly referred to as the stars and stripes puffer. These come in many different patterns and range from brown to olive in color.
  • A. reticularis is commonly referred to as the reticulated puffer. These are often mislabeled as stars and stripes puffers. The differentiating markings are the stripes/lines around the eyes and face in the reticularis puffer. These puffers tend to be more aggressive than the stars and stripes and can often be “fin nippers.”
  • A. meleagris is commonly referred to as the guineafowl or golden puffer. There are two colorations of this puffer: the golden phase or the black or brown with white spots. The two color phases cannot be housed together as they will eventually fight.

Third Choices

  • A. diadematus is also known as the Red Sea masked or panda puffer. These puffers can grow to 12 inches, but do not acclimate or take food as readily as the other species of puffers. They can be housed in a tank of at least 100 gallons.
  • A. mappa is commonly referred to as the map or scribbled puffer. These are often available as juveniles, but can quickly grow to resemble a 30-inch football. They are often shy and require adequate hiding spots. Recommended tank size is at least 280 gallons.

Fourth Choices: While these puffers are often available — they should be left to advanced hobbyists only.

  • A. stellatus is commonly referred to as the starry puffer. They often are aggressive and will injure others in the tank as they become adults. They can reach almost 4 feet and require a tank of at least 600 gallons.
  • Chilomycterus schoepfi is also known as the spiny box puffer. These puffers can reach 10 inches and need tanks of at least 100 gallons. Unfortunately, these puffers do not acclimate well to living in a tank and often will refuse food and eventually starve to death.

Thermometers and Heaters
Thermometers and heaters in the tank are definitely not advised. Not only are the power cords a source of potential harm, but the thermometer itself can cause injury or death to a puffer. I have seen puffers dead with the entire heater lodged from their mouths to their stomachs. Without a ground fault interrupter (GFI) in this tank, the potential damage to the hobbyist could have been grave. The GFI will sense stray voltage and shut off power to the tank. This will prevent electrocution of the hobbyist.

Artificial Plants, Etc.
While plastic or fabric plants, plastic nori feeding clips and dried sea fans do add color to the tank, they are easily destroyed and often ingested. Freshwater decorations, statues, air-driven moving figurines and artificial saltwater coral replicas do not hold up to the teeth of a puffer. They are crushed, and the paint is often chewed, peeled or scraped off by the puffer’s teeth. Any of these objects are a potential source of intestinal obstruction.

Other Puffer “Snacks”
Corals, invertebrates and macroalgaes are “hit or miss” with puffers. Most Arothron (Tetradontidae) puffers will eventually taste and destroy a reef tank. Most puffers will eat or nibble macroalgae at some time in the aquarium. Diodontidae puffers (porcupine) will usually not harm a coral unless there is a piece of food directly lying or resting on the coral. Puffers can be rambunctious when it is feeding time. Inadvertent toppling and subsequent damage to a coral can occur while the puffer is attempting to beg or swim to get food.

Invertebrates, such as crabs, urchins and snails, are natural foods for puffers. While many hobbyists will report keeping invertebrates with their puffers for extended periods of time, just as many will report their demise. I would not recommend risking the life of an invertebrate by keeping it in the same tank as a puffer.

Fish and invertebrates that bury in the sand are in potential danger of injury. Many fishes, especially wrasses, will bury at night. The natural hunting instinct of most puffers is to blow the sand looking for potential food (i.e., crabs and other invertebrates). Any fish or invertebrate that may move or wiggle, may be tasted by a puffer. The breathing pattern of a buried sleeping wrasse can elicit the puffer’s instinct to taste.

Puffer Tanks
The actual construction and material of the tank needs to be considered as well. Acrylic tanks are lighter, easier to move and less expensive, but they are not recommended for fish with teeth. Acrylic tanks will sustain deep scratches from a puffer’s teeth. Puffers will quickly learn to recognize that the human on the other side of the tank will deliver food and will enthusiastically cruise the front of the tank with their teeth pressed against it. Above-ground ponds with liners are also not recommended, as the liner will quickly suffer from a puffer’s teeth. While glass aquariums are heavier and often more expensive to have custom built, they do hold up better against puffer teeth.

Biting the Hand That Feeds
While performing routine maintenance inside a tank, gloves should always be worn, not only to protect the tank inhabitants from potential toxins and exposures, but to protect hobbyists from potential exposures to pathogens. There are gloves available to hobbyists that are of a bright orange color. Puffers are often attracted to these like bulls to red capes. I have seen puffers literally go crazy and attack these gloves. Perhaps, orange-colored gloves resemble freeze-dried krill or shrimp. Having someone watch the puffers and guide them away from another’s hand is advisable. If another person is not available, partitioning the tank off with a plastic lighting screen to protect the hobbyist is an option.

Puffers have strong, sharp teeth that can inflict very deep and serious injuries. Care should be employed at all times, especially during feedings. Feeding time can elicit increased activity, fury and excitement. During feedings puffers will actually jump or bob out of water. An unsuspecting hobbyist can sustain a bite during this feeding frenzy.

Health Issues

  • Internal worms. Puffers are prone to worm infestations. Deworming while in quarantine is often recommended. And Praziquantel is an excellent dewormer.
  • External parasites. Cryptocaryon irritans (marine ich) is common in puffers, which are often called “ich magnets.” Prophylactically treating puffers with hyposalinity or copper while in quarantine is recommended.
  • Overgrown teeth. This problem is only limited to the Arothron or the Tetraodontidae family. These puffers have four teeth that are fused to form a beak. The Diodontidae family has two fused plates and therefore does not suffer from this ailment. Preventative measures like feeding hard-shelled foods may help, but clipping or filing of the teeth may be needed.
  • “Lockjaw” or the inability to masticate or open and close the mouth. This has been seen in puffers that have been fed a diet of only freeze-dried krill. The onset of symptoms takes months, and when the symptoms present the damage is often irreversible. A puffer’s diet should contain a wide variety of meaty foods, such as squid, shrimp, silversides, scallops, cuddlefish, smelt, octopus, prawn and mysis. Krill can be fed but along with other meaty foods. They also should be offered small amounts of greens, such as nori, seaweed and algae.

The puffer fish's health can be well-kept with proper husbandry 
This wild porcupine puffer (Diodon holocanthus) is missing an eye the cause of which might be disease, tangling with a predator or something entirely different. While captivity may seem like a safer bet, it is rife with peril of its own. However, good husbandry practices can go a long way to ensuring your puffers remain healthy in the tank.

Ways to Puffer Proof

Due to puffer's propensity to chew, housing boxes and PVC pipes are excellent preventatives
One way to protect puffers and your in-tank equipment is to house equipment in a box made of plastic lighting screen that is secured with cable ties. Additionally, the PVC pipe coming out of the box protects all cables, chords and air line tubing from the chewing ability of puffers.

The ideal puffer tank would have a sump where all pumps, thermometers and other equipment can safely be housed out of the reach of any puffers and their teeth. The sump would prevent any inadvertent chewing or injuries.

Sumps may not be an option for many hobbyists. In that case, all cords need to be protected or not in the tank. These can be covered and protected by PVC pipes or thick vinyl tubing and secured with cable ties. Do not use orange cable ties. Again, puffers are drawn to the orange color and will often chew through or gnaw at orange cable ties.

Thermometers, heaters, air-driven sponge filters, powerheads and pumps need to be isolated in a section of the tank that puffers cannot access. This can be done with plastic lighting screen that is available at many home-improvement stores. Make sure that the screen is cut to fit snuggly and it is secured with cable ties. Another option is to house the equipment in a protective housing or box. These can be easily built out of lighting crate or plastic milk crates or the plastic storage boxes.

Air line tubing and ceramic airstones can be protected by placing them in a PVC pipe drilled with multiple holes. This will allow aeration without damage to the tubing or airstones.

If a substrate is desired in the tank, then fine sugar-grain sand is preferred. Decorations should be rock or coral skeletons, as these are not easily destroyed and ingested. Puffers prefer caves or rock ledges that they can squeeze into and feel secure. Like humans, puffers will often underestimate their actual size and try to fit in a “seat” that is too small for them. This activity can cause unsecured rock caves to fall and possibly cause injury or death to them or other fish.

Never place fish or invertebrates that bury in a tank with puffers. Adding inverts or corals into a puffer tank is also not recommended. While many hobbyists will relate experiences in which they have successfully kept certain invertebrates and/or corals with some puffers, there are just as many hobbyists that have been unsuccessful. Experimenting or trying to prove that it can be done will often lead to the potential injury or loss of an invertebrate or coral. In addition to the potential physical damage to the invertebrate or coral, maintaining water parameters suitable to maintain their health may be difficult too.

And lastly, never put your hand into a tank with a puffer. While puffers can often be taught to hand feed or actually take food from humans, they are animals with natural instincts. They may get excited or overanxious and can inflict a dangerous and painful bite. They will bite the hand that feeds them.

 

Kelly Jedlicki

Kelly Jedlicki’s love and study of pufferfishes earned her the moniker “puffer queen” by respected reef photographer and writer Scott Michael. She has an aquatic collection totaling 3,000 gallons of seawater. She has served as president and vice president of the Louisville Marine Aquarium Society and as vice president of MASNA. She is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner.
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