Field of Science

In a Pufferfish's Garden

Bullseye puffer Sphoeroides annulatus, copyright Geoffrey W. Schultz.

I don't know if it applies in other parts of the world, but one animal that you are guaranteed to see in the estuary here in Perth is pufferfish. One of the most instantly recognisable fish families, pufferfish (Tetraodontidae) are of course famed for their high toxicity, the determination of some people to eat them despite aforementioned toxicity, and their habit of swallowing air or water when threatened to inflate their distendible bellies. That last feature makes them a favourite of children (or at least of yours truly as a child), because their slow swimming style makes them one of the few fish that can be easily captured by hand (you just have to make sure you don't allow the fish to give you a nasty bite with their beak). The first feature makes them a lot less popular with fishermen who have to experience the frustration of reeling in a line to find that the bait has been taken by a puffer, then trying to remove the puffer from the hook while avoiding the aforementioned beak.

Oceanic puffer Lagocephalus lagocephalus, from Baino96.

There are a little under 200 known pufferfish species worldwide. Most of them are found in coastal marine and brackish waters, but there are also several species found in fresh water in South America, Africa and southeast Asia. Some marine species are also resistant to fresh water and may spend extended periods away from the sea. Some southeast Asian brackish-water Tetraodon species even make regular appearances in the the aquarium trade labelled as 'freshwater' puffers (Yamanoue et al. 2011), though their long-term survival requires more appropriate water conditions. The toxin associated with pufferfishes is not produced by the fish itself, but accumulated through its diet. As such, the exact level of toxicity of a pufferfish may vary according to season.

Grass puffer Takifugu niphobles, copyright OpenCage.

A molecular phylogenetic analysis of pufferfish by Yamanoue et al. (2011) identified four main clades in the family. These clades were also supported by a subsequent analysis by Santini et al. (2013), though the deeper relationships between the clades differed between the analyses. Yamanoue et al. (2011) identified a small number of freshwater clades (only one for each continent with freshwater taxa) and inferred that the transition from marine to fresh water had happened only rarely. Santini et al. (2013), in contrast, supported a higher number of transitions in tetraodontid history, though at least some of the difference between the two studies can be explained by differing definitions of 'freshwater'. For instance, some species of Takifugu usually live in brackish water but spawn in fresh water; Santini et al. counted these as freshwater species, but Yamanoue et al. did not.

Papuan toby Canthigaster papua, photographed by Dwayne Meadows.

One of the major clades identified within the Tetraodontidae includes the genus Lagocephalus, a group of relatively long-bodied puffers including some of the few pelagic puffer species. This genus may be the sister taxon of the remaining puffers (as found by Yamanoue et al.), or it may have a more nested position as sister to a clade including the mostly West Atlantic-East Pacific genera Sphoeroides and Colomesus (as found by Santini et al.). This latter clade includes South America's only freshwater puffer, the Amazon species Colomesus asellus. Santini et al. identified the basalmost tetraodontid clade as an Indo-West Pacific assemblage including the genus Takifugu and related taxa, which Yamanoue et al. had found as sister to the final clade including taxa related to the genus Tetraodon. This last clade includes the African and southeast Asian freshwater puffers (except for a few members of the Takifugu clade that cross into fresh water at times). It also includes the genus Canthigaster, the sharpnose pufferfish. In contrast to the more or less globular form of all other puffers, sharpnose puffers have a laterally compressed body form that superficially looks a bit more like a triggerfish than a puffer. Most Canthigaster species are reef-dwellers, a somewhat unusual habitat for a puffer (the other main group of reef-dwelling puffers being the genus Arothron, also in the Tetraodon clade).

Circular underwater 'nest' constructed by a pufferfish, from Spoon & Tamago.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of any puffer, though, was not discovered until quite recently. In 2012, it was announced that large structures observed off the coast of Japan by underwater photographer Yoji Ookata were in fact the work of pufferfish. These structures, circular and regular geometric patterns in the sea bed about 1.5 metres in diameter, were made by male puffers swimming against the sand. The structures are believed to function in attracting females, and also function as nests in which the females lay their eggs. Rather frustratingly, I haven't found any indication exactly which species of puffer is involved!

Puffer in the process of building a nest, also from Spoon & Tamago.


Santini, F., M. T. T. Nguyen, L. Sorenson, T. B. Waltzek, J. W. Lynch Alfaro, J. M. Eastman & M. E. Alfaro. 2013. Do habitat shifts drive diversification in teleost fishes? An example from the pufferfishes (Tetraodontidae). Journal of Evolutionary Biology. doi: 10.1111/jeb.12112.

Yamanoue, Y., M. Miya, H. Doi, K. Mabuchi, H. Sakai & M. Nishida. 2011. Multiple invasions into freshwater by pufferfishes (Teleostei: Tetraodontidae): a mitogenomic perspective. PLoS ONE 6 (2): e17410. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017410.


  1. The bower/nest builder is Torquigener albomaculosus, Matsuura 2014.

  2. Thanks, James! That certainly explains why none of the news reports I found mentioned then name, if it hadn't even been named yet.

  3. What a fantastic blog. Thank you - I'll be reading.


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