Puffers and Pals: New Friends from Tigertail and Bonita Springs

Written by Conservancy Education Intern: Tessa Cafritz

Every few months or so, a team of naturalists and animal husbandry interns travel to local Southwest Florida marine environments to collect a regulated amount of specimens in order to adequately educate locals about the environments around them. Collecting is an extremely valuable experience as an intern, and it gave me an opportunity to see more of Southwest Florida’s fascinating ecosystem and meet more of its various inhabitants.

*All of our marine collecting is done under an FWC-issued Aquatic Species Collecting Certificate.

Once arriving at the lagoon in Tigertail Beach Park, we searched for a variety of creatures, focusing mainly on invertebrates for our Touch Tank at the Nature Center. While looking through the seagrass beds, one of our naturalists made a wonderful discovery: a baby pufferfish made its way into one of our collection buckets! Fry, the term used to describe any kind of baby fish, will typically grow up in seagrass beds adjacent to marine environments since there are plenty of places to hide and food to eat. Our pufferfish was no exception! We almost did not spot him at first since his markings consisted of very light brown spots and he was about the size of a peanut, which later became his nickname.

Once back at the Conservancy, we immediately set up an appropriate sized saltwater tank in our main life support systems room for our new friend. Our goal is to help Peanut grow so he can move to a larger tank in the Nature Center! Soon after, Peanut was joined by other growing friends that were collected on a sepPuffershiarate trip to an estuary near Bonita Springs. One of which included another baby puffer! This guy has a similar shape and pattern to Peanut but is overall darker in color and was given the name Pistachio. Peanut was also joined by a juvenile filefish, lizard fish and two spider crabs. We decided to give the growing tank the name: Puffer & Pals.

Southern Belles

Pistachio (the darker markings of a Pufferfish)
Peanut (the lighter marking of a Pufferfish)

As our puffers grew, we were able to confidently identify them both as Southern Puffer fish. Southern puffers can be found in southern Florida and further south through much of the Caribbean and into the eastern half of the Gulf of Mexico. The markings of Southern puffers can often be misidentified since they can vary. However, most possess a brown body and a paler stomach, adorned with a variety of darker and lighter spots and semi circles ranging from white, tan, brown and dark green. As they get larger they will develop darker slashes on their cheeks and a dark bar between their eyes. Peanut demonstrates the lighter markings of Southern puffer patterning while Pistachio is a better example of the darker. Breeding males are covered with small bright orange and red spots. This species is commonly found in coastal estuaries and have an affinity for mangroves and seagrass beds. They are very active during the day and like to bury themselves in the sand at night or just for fun!

Don’t Mess with a Pufferfish!

Upon the first puffer’s arrival, I was enamored by the charismatic fish species and was eager to learn more about them. There are about 120 species worldwide that reside in salt and freshwater environments. Freshwater puffers tend to be larger and can grow to about two feet in length, while dwarf pufferfish can be as little as one inch. They are identified by their long; bulbous bodies that taper out towards their back fins and tail. An easy way to identify puffers is their beak-like mouths comprised of 4 teeth fused together! They specialize in eating a variety of aquatic invertebrates and algae (Peanut and Pistachio love shrimp!).

Pufferfish received their name because they are known to puff up their bodies with water and air when they feel threatened. They acquired this adaption because they are not very good swimmers — their fins are not very powerful and they primarily jet around by squirting water out of their gills. As a result, they puff up to four times their original size, and with their spiky scaleless skin, they become unappetizing to a scary predator. It is best not to eat pufferfish considering they have high levels of a toxin called tetradoxtodin. This toxin can be lethal and tastes very gross! There is enough poison in one pufferfish to kill 30 adults! Some pufferfish, like our southerns, can develop their toxins on their own while others can acquire toxins from their diet. Once threatened, pufferfish quickly intake water and air to a specialized section of their stomach — similar to a human blowing up a balloon — in order to inflate themselves in a matter of seconds. The skin of a pufferfish can stretch either times further than any other kind of fish, and their specialized spiky spines anchor their skin to maintain a circular shape. Pufferfish can successfully transform themselves into a ball of incompressible water that is too large and too difficult for predators to swallow!

Our tiny Pufferfish friend burying himself to feel safe!

Puffers & Pals

Southern Pufferfish are not the only ones of their kind at the nature center! They are in the order Teraodontiformes which includes our Striped Burrfish, who resides in our Seagrass Tank, and our new filefish currently growing in the Puffers and Pals aquarium behind the scenes. Like the pufferfish, burrfish can inflate themselves as a defense mechanism, however the specialized area of their stomachs that inflates is not quite as large as a pufferfish. Instead, they suck in water and try to mimic the shape and spikiness of a pufferfish to fool predators. Filefish are also known to mimic pufferfish coloration, and will even school along with them in an effort to protect themselves. All three animals have specialized mouths of fused teeth which groups them under the same classification order. The teeth adaptations help these three species of fish to be excellent at hunting a variety of crustaceans and invertebrates for their diet.

Come visit our burrfish at the Nature Center today! Just look at that face!

Our puffers & pals will soon be on display at the Nature Center, but until then be sure to stop by and say hello to our smiley burrfish in the Seagrass Exhibit!