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Puffer Fish

puffer fish, Tetraodontidae

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Puffer fish are a part of the family Tetraodontidae.  There are 19 genera and 121 individual species of puffer fish in this genus. Puffers flourish in the tropical regions of the world. Their numbers decrease substantially in temperate zones and are nonexistent in colder water regions. This species is prevalent in open water as well as the semi-enclosed estuaries of bays and sounds and the brackish water areas of river tidal mouths. Puffers are typically small to medium sized fish. However there are species that can grow up to almost 40 inches in length.

Puffer fish derived their names from the highly elastic qualities of their stomach linings. They have the ability to rapidly inflate their stomach with water until they are almost completely spherical in shape. This purely defensive mechanism serves the dual purpose of making them harder to swallow and giving their would-be predators a reason to take pause and question the size of the prey they have chosen to hunt. Puffers will frequently inflate their stomachs with air when they are suddenly lifted up out of the water. They often experience difficulty expelling this foreign substance form their stomachs. A knowledgeable aquarist will hold the fish by its tail with its head pointed upwards. The fish is then gently shaken until the water escapes from its mouth. Various species of puffer fish are known by the names puffer, blowfish, bubblefish, balloonfish, globefish, swellfish, as well as toadfish, toadies, honey toads, and sea squabs. The later references refer to their course almost sandpaper-like spines.

Puffer fish are the second most poisonous vertebrates in the world in relation to human consumption.  They are preceded only by the Golden Poison Frog. Despite the inherent danger, puffer fish are considered exotic delicacies in both Japan and Korea. In Japan puffer flesh is known as fugu, and in Korea, bok. Specially trained chefs are charged with the responsibility of rendering this fish’s toxins harmless for their expecting guests. It should be noted that the toxins found in puffer fish are not nearly as toxic to many marine species as they are to humans. 

Puffer fish poisoning is usually the result of improperly prepared dishes. The ingestion of properly prepared puffer fish will result in a light-headed feeling of intoxication and a numbness of the lips and tongue. When improperly prepared; deadening of the lips and tongue, dizziness and vomiting will soon overcome the euphoric effects. These are the initial symptoms of puffer fish poisoning. Progressive symptoms are; a prickling sensation all over the body, an increase in heart rate, a decrease in blood pressure and muscle paralysis. Death most commonly results from suffocation due to the paralysis of the diaphragm. What's for dinner? 

Most victims of puffer poisoning die within 24 hours. There have been cases or puffer poisoning induced comas that lasted several days. Coma patients often awake to report that they were fully conscious and remember everything that was said and done during the course of their paralysis. Patients who survive the first 24 hours without lapsing into a coma usually make a full recovery.  The common treatments for puffer poisoning are stomach pumping and activated charcoal filtration of the blood.  Little else can be done with current technological levels.

Because of their toxic qualities puffer fish have been harvested for centuries by Voodoo practitioners. Pharmaceutical companies are researching the toxicological effect of these fish for the advancement of modern medicine. The first of these drugs to be releases is Tectin derived from tetrodotoxin. When administered in small doses this potent medication relieves the chronic pain experienced by many cancer patients. Studies are also being conducted on the use of tetrodotoxin based medication to help in the treatment of opiate withdrawals.

The scientific name, Tetraodontidae, refers to the four large teeth characteristic to every member of this family. Two teeth are fused in the upper and two in the lower plates of these fishes’ jaw bones. In their natural habitat they are used for crushing mollusks and crustaceans. Extreme caution should be exercised in the handling of these fish; not just form potential bite wounds but also from the possibility of toxin seeping into the open wound.

Environmental Parameters


pH Level Specific Gravity
72-78  °F 8.1-8.4 1.007-1.025

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