Pufferfish Encounter

May 17, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve been thinking a lot about a washed-up pufferfish I came across on the beach in Costa Rica. This was weeks ago, but you’ll understand when you see the photo I captured of this baby-faced fish. This lone fish washed up feet from where I was shooting an astonishing sunset on a quiet beach. Everything happens for a reason, and this chance meeting sent me on a journey to learn more about pufferfish.

I Made ItI Made ItWashed ashore pufferfish. Left is from a distance; Right is close-up.

First things first, despite its endearing face, these are super deadly fish. There’s enough toxin (called tetrodotoxin) in one pufferfish to kill 30 adult humans, most pufferfish have this toxin, and there’s no known antidote. Again, pufferfish = deadly. I’ve read that pufferfish are considered the second most poisonous creatures in the world, after the poison dart frog. You don’t even want to touch a dead one. In parts of the world, they’re considered a delicacy and are eaten. When prepared by skilled chefs who know how to remove the poisonous parts, they can be safe to eat. But every year, deaths are still reported from eating pufferfish. There are some tips/facts for keeping puffers in aquariums (https://www.petmd.com/fish/general-health/10-facts-about-puffer-fish), but that’s an undertaking best suited for facilities like managed zoos/aquariums that can specialize in underwater enclosures, rather than a home aquarium.


The ability to quickly ingest huge amounts of water and turn itself into an inedible ball is what keeps the pufferfish generally protected from being eaten by a predator. This is also where the pufferfish gets its name. The pufferfish’s stomach works like a water balloon, expanding to 100 times its normal size. Some pufferfish, like the departed one I encountered, are covered in spines (not scales) that stick out when they inflate. This is a further deterrent/weapon they have against predators.


What’s even hipper about pufferfish is that male pufferfish are also artists – maybe accidental artists – but artists nonetheless!  I don’t know the gender of the fish I encountered, but let’s think guys for now. Take a look at this image (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/pufferfish-create-underwater-crop-circles-when-they-mate-620736/) that was taken by Japanese divers and later led to the discovery that it was created by male pufferfish during mating rituals.  Pufferfish create "underwater crop circles" to attract a mate. According to a study (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep02106), males spend seven to nine days constructing intricate patterns in the sand to attract females. Researchers don’t know exactly what causes females to choose a nest site, but they do believe female’s evaluation of the nest characteristics makes a difference. Researchers concluded:

  • “Therefore, it appears reasonable to assume that females visiting male nest sites evaluate nest characteristics and that these characteristics play an important role in female mate choice. However, the definite factors affecting this choice remain unknown, i.e. size of the circular structure; symmetric properties, peak height, number of radially aligned peaks and valleys; size, colour, number and arrangement of the ornaments; and the design, amount and quality of the fine sand particles in the irregular central pattern. “ (page 4, https://www.nature.com/articles/srep02106).


There are over 150 known species of pufferfish. Whether the one that I had a chance meeting with is a species that performs this mating ritual, or is even a male, I can’t say. But, let’s just say he got my attention.  Hopefully, he also got the attention of a special mate before he came ashore.


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