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Porcupinefishes and Puffers

Order Tetraodontiformes - Suborder Tetraodontoidei

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Pufferfish

Blue Pufferfish

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RANGE: Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America, Central and North America
HABITAT: Sub-tropial and tropical marine waters, and some freshwater species (Tetraodon) that are found in the Congo River and in southern Asia
SIZE: Up to 90 cm, or 36 in which is very large for a puffer

What a mouthful of names for a number of fish known commonly as porcupinefishes and puffers. Any predator who tries to eat one of these fishes is in for a surprise.

When faced with trouble, a puffer gulps in water until its stomach is full and the fish swells in size completely spherical. If that little fish also has sharp spines, it's a little procupine puffer. When the fish expands, the spines extend. When danger is over, the fish releases the water, the spines lie flat and the puffer resumes its normal shape and size.

With these two distinguishing defence mechanisms, the puffers can adapt to a wide variety of habitats, eatiing sea urchins, crabs and mollusks, among coral reefs, sandy flats, eel grass beds and rocky shorelines. They are night-feeders and prefer a solitary life, hiding during the day among the reefs.

Another defense against predators is toxicity. Most pufferfish are poisonous, with tetrodotoxin stored in their internal organs. This poison causes paralysis and breathing difficulties. Death in humans can result after only 30 minutes. Reserach scientists are working on a powerful painkiller based on tetrodotoxin. Althouth most people choose not to risk the poison, in Japan the pufferfish is considered a delicacy and only a few people are licenses to handle and prepare the fish for consumption.

Pufferfish are classified in the order Tetradontiformes, which has three familes:

  • Tridontidae - single three-toothed species
  • Tetradontidae - smooth and sharpnose puffers with four teeth
  • Diodontidae - the spiny pufferfish, burrfishes, and porcupinefishes with two fused teeth Their fused teeth crush and grind hard food found in the coral reefs. Over time, the bones in their heads and body fused together, making the puffer almost boneless. When then spines are flat against the body, the skin feels thick and leathery.

    There is research into the theory that pufferfish are not in themselves poisonous, but are toxic due to their diet, bacteria in the things they eat. Studies have shown that pufferfish grown in culture do not produce tetrodotoxin until they are fed tissues from a toxin producing fish.

    Whatever further research proves, if you see a puffer or a porcupine fish, look but don't touch. And don't eat!

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