A Puffer Primer

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Map Puffer juvenile being raised by the author. Mike Maddox.

Puffers! Part 1: BIG Marine Pufferfish Care

By Mike Maddox

Who doesn’t love pufferfish? They’re my favorite marine family, and I’d like to share some information that has allowed me to be successful with this fascinating, intelligent group of fishes.

Marine puffers are cute when small, engaging when large (who can resist those big puffer eyes), interactive, and BIG! The vast majority of commonly (and not so commonly) available pufferfish attain lengths of 12 inches (30 cm) at the very least.

Add to this their active nature and messy feeding habits and you have yourself a handful. Of course, these hurdles have never deterred me, and I’d like to share with you a few tidbits that have worked in my ten years of experience caring for marine pufferfish.


Your first hurdle will be housing your potential eating machine, as well as maintaining good water quality.

This is easier said than done; you’re going to need a big tank with a big filter. In my opinion, 125 gallons (473 L) is the minimum for any Arothron or Diodon species you may want, and you’ll need even bigger tank for some of the rarer (but beautiful) giants like the Map Puffer (A. mappa) or Starry Puffer (A. stellatus).

Obviously, the larger the aquarium, the better – I house my marine puffers in a 175 gallon (662 L) system. If you are on a tight budget, ask your local aquarium shop if they have any used large tanks lurking in the back room.


Got the puffer tank? Now you’ll have to filter it. A large protein skimmer is a must, as well as an oversized biological filter.

Wet/dry and fluidized wet/dry filters are recommended, though creativity with canister filters is also possible. A deep sand bed will help control the copious amount of nitrates produced and keep the nuisance algae from taking over your tank, though other denitrating options are always possible (coil, chemical ad/absorption).

I personally have a 60-gallon (227 L) sump with a built-in wet/dry filter, and two protein skimmers to handle my messy eaters.

Don’t forget the most important aspect to keeping your water in tip-top shape: water changes. Weekly or bi-weekly water changes of at least 25% are highly recommended, and will be necessary for nutrient control. Make sure the temp/pH and salinity of the freshly mixed water are matched to those of your aquarium water.


Once your system (and it will be quite a system once you’re adequately prepared for long-term marine puffer care) is ready, you’ll probably want to consider suitable tankmates.

Remember, pufferfish consume mollusks and crustaceans in the wild, and are definitely not reef safe! Large marine puffers are ideal candidates for fish-only aquariums, and should only be kept with fish of similar temperaments.

Puffers can definitely be described as “obnoxious” and shouldn’t be kept with anything that has tempting appendages, or they will likely be happily chomped upon by puffer beaks.

Puffers can make suitable tankmate finding challenging, but likely your puffers will be the stars of the show anyway. To their credit, puffers are not piscivores and will not chase down and eat small fishes.

Faster-moving schooling species such as Bluegreen Chromis, silvery Monos, or a group of Golden Wrasse can coexist with a puffer or puffers, and larger, rugged angelfishes such as the Yellowbar Angelfish are also a possibility if good water-quality is maintained.

Other tough fishes that can share space with puffers are groupers, hawkfishes, triggerfishes, and larger wrasses. Always be wary of overloading the filtration capacity of the tank, however.


In my experience, feeding is a grossly neglected topic when discussing captive pufferfish.

First of all, it helps to have some information on how puffers feed in the wild: in nature pufferfish are opportunistic predators, hanging out around rock shelves searching for snails, or actively searching the seafloor for anything buried (usually crabs, shrimp, or worms).

They usually do not consume fish of any type, and often do not even get a meal every day. Keep this, and the following in mind when feeding your pufferfish: they need fresh, meaty seafoods in the shell (shrimp, prawns, crab legs, oysters, mussels, crayfish – all available at your local grocery) as a staple and to keep your puffer’s teeth worn down.

I offer freeze-dried foods (krill, plankton, prepared carnivore foods) a few times a week or when in a hurry. At least once a week, don’t feed your puffer at all (don’t fall for the begging!) as it is not good to feed big carnivorous fish every day.

Many puffers die from improper diets, and although this can take a few years, it will happen if they are not fed a variety of foods, and if fresh seafood is not a staple.

As a final note, do not feed your puffer freshwater ‘feeder’ fish – ever. This is a completely inappropriate food source for any marine animal, and can cause intestinal blockage leading to demise.

This series of articles will soon appear in interactive blog form as Mike Maddox Live.

See: Map Puffer, Blackspotted Puffer, Tetrodotoxin.

Freshwater Puffers: Topaz Puffer