Which Puffer?

Article by Tim Stoodley
Author: Last updated:

Puffer fish have a widespread appeal amongst fish keepers, in part due to their 'cute' eyes, unusual swimming patterns, and famous ability to inflate with air or water as a defence against predators. So, when you make a trip to your local aquatics shop and see these cute little creatures for sale, which one do you go for?


They may look cute but the majority of Puffer fish are actually quite aggressive, and few are suited to communities due to their boisterous behaviour, tendency to nip fins, and big appetite.

Why do you want a puffer-fish?

The first thing to consider when buying a Puffer is why do you want one? Most people like them because of their forward facing eyes, which they can move individually, giving them a 'cuteness' appeal. However, they are not all fun and games! Most puffers are robust and will not tolerate many other species and they are normally at the top of their food chain in their natural environments. For example, the seawater porcupine puffer is known to only have one natural predator, the tiger shark. Without many predators, they stamp out their authority on smaller fish. Match this to the fact that they are meat eaters and, as such, need to eat plenty of smaller fish and invertebrates, and you don't want these to be your tank mates! Only a handful of species will truly tolerate, and live peacefully in a community setting.

The red-eyed puffer (Carinotetradon lorteti) will blend into a carefully selected community aquarium. However, even this species will become aggressive as an adult. Another type of Puffer fish perfectly suited to the aquarium setting is the spotted Congo puffer (Tetradon shoutedeni), although this puffer is rare in the ornamental trade. These fish will only grow to around 10cm, making them ideal for the average community tank.

Puffer-fish requirements

The second consideration that needs to be made when buying puffers is to consider the amount of room you have in your tank. Puffer fish are open water swimmers and very few species will keep a territory within a certain area. This means that you must accommodate their needs and provide plenty of swimming space. The majority of Puffers will, as such, require a large tank. A few exceptions include the dwarf puffer (Tetradon travancorius), which will only grow to around 2.5-3cm. Ideally though, despite their tiny size, these puffers are quite aggressive and should be kept in a species only tank of around 70 litres (15 gallons) for every 5-6 dwarf puffers, as they can be aggressive in groups and will require plenty of hiding places and swimming room. Another peaceful, smaller species is the Brazilian Freshwater Puffer (Colomesus asellus) and the extremely aggressive Target Puffer (Tetradon leiurus) both will thrive in a relatively small 30-40 imperial gallon tank.

Water conditions

The third thing to consider when purchasing a puffer fish is the type of water they require. Do they require freshwater, brackish or full seawater conditions? The majority of puffers live in the ever-changing brackish estuary water, where the river meets the sea. The salt levels in this environment are always changing and need to be recreated in the home aquarium. The majority of brackish water Puffer fish can tolerate complete freshwater or even total marine conditions within the aquarium. Some Puffer fish even have a life span entailing all three water systems. The Ceylon or Topaz Puffer (Tetradon fluviatilis) is born in freshwater shallows, before entering brackish water and then emigrating to complete marine conditions before adulthood. It is important to try and recreate these conditions as best as possible in the home aquarium, slightly increasing the salinity with age.

It is only possible to touch on the surface of water types when considering what puffer to buy. With over 150 puffer species already documented, varying from freshwater to marine, the scope and diversity is like that of no other family.

The final thing to consider when purchasing puffer fish is their diet. Puffers will not eat flake foods. Therefore, they need to be fed meaty foods such as bloodworm and brine shrimp, or larger meaty foods depending on the species of puffer. The majority of Puffer fish have 'beaks', which are basically teeth and, as such, need to be worn down by the feeding of shellfish, such as mussels and cockles complete with shells, and mixed with snails and other hard-shelled inverts. This can work out quite expensive to feed your new friend so make sure your willing to commit to the diet needs of your puffer fish.

If your willing to accommodate all the above needs for your puffer fish then have fun! They are one of the most rewarding and exciting fish you will ever keep in your fish-keeping experience!

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