Cute and Deadly: Learn about the Puffer Family
There’s more to puffer fish than meets the eye.
They go by many names: pufferfish, balloonfish, blowfish, bubblefish, globefish, swellfish, toadfish, toadies and sea squab. Regardless of what they’re called, these members of the Tetraodontidae fish family are best known for their unique ability to expand and take on the appearance of spiked balloons when they are threatened. The waters of Wakatobi are home to a number of species of puffers that are easy to find and fascinating to watch. Let’s meet some of these inflatable “soccer balls of the sea.”
With more than 120 species in the family, puffers are a common sight on coral reefs around the world, though you might not recognize them when they aren’t all “puffed up.” Unlike their cousin the porcupine fish, which always shows its spikes, the puffer keeps it’s armament concealed until it goes into defensive mode. Most of the time, puffers resemble oversized tadpoles, with bulging eyes and an elongated snout that gives them a puppy dog-like appearance. They come in a wide range of sizes, from the dwarf puffer, which is often less than an inch (2.5 cm) in length, to the starry puffer, which grows up to four feet (1.3 meters).
One of the more distinctive characteristics of the puffer is the eyes. The relatively large size of the eyes give puffers a seemingly expressive countenance, but more importantly provides sharper vision that most other fish possess. Each eye can move independent of the other, allowing the puffer to scan for threats across a wide range of vision.
Both eyes can also be directed forward to provide superior depth perception. Some puffers also have eyes with green iridescent layers, positioned to reflect bright light from above, yet allow in light in from surrounding objects—the aquatic equivalent of mirrored sunglasses.
Puffers won’t win any swim races. Their relatively small pectoral and dorsal fins allow them to maneuver around the reef with precision, but don’t provide much speed. But when danger looms, the puffer can get out of the way. The tail fin, which is mainly used as a rudder during uneventful moments, can also provide sudden, short bursts of speed when evasive action is called for. Combined with the puffer’s excellent eyesight, this ability for rapid acceleration allows the puffer to escape many threats without having to resort to visual and chemical defense systems.
When escape isn’t possible, a puffer will revert to plan B, invoking their signature talent for expansion. To inflate, a puffer will swallow water rapidly to fill its highly-elastic stomach, which swells to expand the fish to twice or more its normal size. This size change alone is enough to deter some would-be predators. But at the same time, hidden spikes on the puffer’s skin are raised, transforming this harmless-looking fish into a prickly ball of menace.
Deliberate attempts to evoke their defensive behavior is usually frowned upon by divers and snorkelers; some say it causes undue stress to the fish, but a more compelling reason to abstain may be that repeated goading may cause the fish to start shying away from divers, depriving others of the chance to encounter this wonderful fish. So the next time you see a puffer on the reef, give it a bit of space, and look but by all means don’t touch. Photo by Wayne MacWilliams
Some puffers have pointed spines, even if they are not visible until inflated. Hence, a hungry predator may suddenly find itself facing an unpalatable pointy ball rather than a slow, tasty fish. Even if a predator manages to get one down its throat, it still may find it got more than it bargained for. Many puffers also contain a neurotoxin that can be lethal or at the least highly unpleasant to anyone who eats it. Unfortunately, according to many reputable sources, puffing up too often can be very stressful to the pufferfish. So, as marine life lovers and photographers we must respect these wondrous creatures and not create undo stress by refraining from touching or scaring the animal, even when we think it might be ok.
The blackspotted puffer is one of the more colorful varieties of puffer found in the waters of Wakatobi. It prefers coral-rich areas, where it can be found hovering in the vicinity of caves or crevices during the day, and resting in barrel sponges, or among soft corals at night. It feeds mainly on hard corals, preferring to nip the tips off of branching species, and sea anemones.
Photo by Paula Butler
The blackspotted puffer ranges from brown to blue-gray, with a black or brown area around the jaws and black spots on the body, and yellow on their bellies and sides. On rare occasions one may encounter a blackspotted puffer that is completely gold, or even orange.
Photo by Steve Miller
With their unique, puppy-like snouts and big eyes, puffers make interesting and evocative subjects for fish watchers and underwater photographers alike. Visit us at Wakatobi to witness many species of puffferfish.
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