By Paul Schuman (originally written for the Honolulu Aquarium Society )
Are you bored with your fish? Have you been breeding guppies so long, it has become a chore, instead of fun? Maybe it's time to try something new. One possibility is getting a puffer. But, before you go buy one and put it in with those baby guppies, read on.
The first thing you notice about puffers is they are CUTE! Their fat bodies and comical expression, as they beg for food at the front of the glass, has caused many aquarists to buy on the spot. Many have regretted this impulsive decision later, as their prized guppies or bettas now have shredded fins, and the poor puffer lays dark and dying on the bottom of the tank. But, you're smart enough to read this article before you buy, so you'll know what you are getting into, and can head off potential disaster before it occurs.
Many of you know from my previous articles that I specialize in Corydoras and Dwarf South American Cichlids . However, if I were only allowed to keep one tank, with one fish, it would be a Figure 8 puffer! I have kept one (not the same one) for about the last 10 years. I used to have trouble keeping them alive, but I have learned their special requirements over the years, and I'll pass these along here. I will concentrate on Figure 8 puffers, but I'll also mention another popular species.
First, I'll try to clear up the scientific name. Depending on your reference, you will see Figure 8's listed as Tetraodon palembangensis, Tetraodon steindachneri, or Tetraodon biocellatus. Some sources say there are three different species (there aren't). Originally it was misidentified as Tetraodon palembangensis by BLEEKER (1852). This was noted by DEKKERS in 1975, and he authored a new name, T. steindachneri. This stood until 1986, when KOTTELAT found an older valid name overlooked by DEKKERS. The older name was T. biocellatus, described by TIRANT in 1885. This name stands today. So the correct name is Tetraodon biocellatus. (Thank you to Svein A. Fossa of Norway for researching this for me.)
Now that you know the proper scientific name, what are some of those problems I mentioned? For one, many puffers come from brackish water. Even the ones that come from fresh water still seem to do better with salt added to their water. Most sources now say Figure 8 puffers come from freshwater along the East coast of India. However, some of those same sources (and my own observations) say the only aquarium raised Figure 8's to reach their full 6 inch size, were raised in full saltwater.
6 inch size?! There's another potential problem. I usually start mine in a 10 gallon tank, by itself. Even under the best of conditions, they are slow growing, so a 10 gallon should be fine for a small puffer for at least a year or two. Eventually, you will have to move up to a 20 gallon, and may end up needing a 30 gallon for your full grown puffer. The reason I keep my puffers by themselves, at least initially, is they tend to be aggressive and notorious fin nippers. I've been lucky so far. My Figure 8's have not bothered other fish. My current puffer is in a tank with 2 Bumble Bee gobies. He hasn't bothered them at all. With my last puffer, I put a baby feeder guppy in his tank, to see what would happen. Two months later, I had a full grown feeder guppy with my puffer. Don't bet your puffer will be as peaceful as mine. The common green spotted puffer has been known to bite swordtails in half! It's much better to plan on keeping them alone, then try a feeder guppy or other salt tolerant fish, to see what happens. Also, puffers tend to get worse as they get older, so beware
The last potential problem for some aquarists is feeding their puffers. I have never seen a puffer that would eat flake or pellet food. You will have to feed live and/or frozen foods. This is something to consider before purchasing one. The live foods I feed include; snails (they LOVE snails!), opai (glass, ghost or grass) shrimp, brine shrimp, tubifex worms, and daphnia. My frozen foods are bring shrimp and blood worms (midge fly larvae). I have also fed fresh clam, oyster, and mussel meat. The puffers teeth are fused into a beak-like structure, which easily crushes thin freshwater snail shells and cuts through tough clam and oyster meat. It can also cut through fish!
Water conditions should be hard and alkaline, with at least some salt added. I use coral and shells to keep the pH up. Salt will increase hardness. I vary salt levels with weekly water changes. Most brackish environments vary from fresh to brackish to salt water, sometimes over a period of hours, depending on location. Mine has varied from almost fresh to full marine. I've had my current puffer for 8 months, and he's grown from a little over an inch to two and a half inches in that time.
So, after reading all the potential problems, you decide you still want a puffer. What do you look for? First, you need to find some for sale. Many pet shops don't know how to properly care for puffers, thus, they have had trouble keeping them in the past and won't carry them anymore. I have only seen them in two shops here on Oahu in the last 8 months. In one case, they were in very poor shape. In the other, they must have just received them, because they were very small and in good shape. This is where I bought mine.
This brings up another point, since most shops don't properly care for them, you have to be very careful in choosing one. Most common is improper feeding. The puffers will be very thin. Their head will look too large for their body, since they are wasting away. Once they get this thin, they probably won't recover. Look for fat, well rounded ones. The other common problem is disease. Overcrowding, improper water conditions, and starvation often create conditions ripe for disease in puffer tanks. Check carefully for disease, before you buy.
Since puffers are often hard to find, you may not have much choice of species. The most commonly seen puffer is green spotted puffer, T. nigroviridis (formerly T. fluviatilis). This is definitely brackish and seems to be more aggressive than Figure 8's. Figure 8 puffers are the second most commonly seen. Others are available occasionally, but not often.
I have covered the potential problems and unique requirements of fresh and brackish water puffers. If you want to try something new and can provide the tank space, water conditions, and food requirements, a puffer may be just what you're looking for. If you really want a challenge, try getting them to breed! It has been done. Enjoy your new puffer.