How to keep Dwarf puffer fish

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With comic canine faces, bird beaks, quirky lips and more facial expressions than Jim Carrey, pufferfish can evoke a smile from even the sourest of sourpusses, admits Nathan Hill.

The most enduring, admired and adored fish in the hobby have to be the many pufferfish varieties. Traditionally speaking, the challenges of keeping puffers have been split into three categories: size, salinity and temperament.

The size issue is mostly a marine problem. Huge Dog-face and Porcupine puffers are far and away the most appealing, but also the largest, as though their cuteness is directly correlated with their size. These bloated jesters, reaching 50–60cm/20-24" or more, are not for the starter aquarist. Nor many experienced ones.

Salt has been the bane of many puffers, mainly because there seems no 'folk wisdom' consensus on exactly which species require brackish conditions, full-blown marine or fresh.

For years, there has been confusion about exactly how much salt to give a Figure eight or Green spotted puffer, resulting in errors, white spot and death.

And lastly, there’s temperament. Pufferfish are well armed, with slicing ‘beaks’ and a tenacious lust to bite absolutely anything that can be bitten. It’s as though they explore the world with their teeth as a primary sense organ, such is their propensity to chomp.

This means that almost everything that has been housed alongside traditional pufferfish has ended up either shredded or decapitated, resulting in lightly stocked tanks and heavy disappointments.

This all changed when the world’s tiniest bundle of adorable appeared in the hobby. The Dwarf Indian puffers, also known as Pygmy puffers and Malabar puffers, Carinotetraodon travancoricus, were a revelation for the everyday aquarist, being small, entirely freshwater and not quite the relentless psychopaths that we naturally expect of any of their relatives. That’s not to say they’ve been problem free.

In some cases, enthusiastic buyers plunge them into community tanks where they immediately race over to say 'hello' to the resident Siamese fighter in the same way my Scottish terrier tries to say 'hello' to squirrels. A little foresight regarding tank mates can go a long way.

Avoid wild fish

The home aquarist should be mindful to try to avoid wild caught specimens when purchasing pufferfish, due to the impact that the hobby, along with other factors, is having on wild stocks. Though some researchers want to classify Carinotetraodon travancoricus as endangered, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List sees it fit to class them only as vulnerable. Overfishing for the hobby is cited as one reason, though damming in India, aggressive agriculture and deforestation all plays a part.

The figures suggest that over a five-year period, wild populations fell by up to 40%. Ask your retailer the origins of the fish before buying, as this is one situation where farmed or locally bred fish may indeed be preferable.

Buying advice

Pygmy puffer popularity means that you’ll find these fish in dozens, if not hundreds, of stores around the UK.

Check for plumpness and condition before buying, as some are sold in an undernourished state. If you can, request to see the fish feeding before making your decision.

Being small and readily available, expect to pay anywhere upwards from around £2 per fish, and ask if there are bargains on buying numbers. Remember to keep eyes open for farmed puffers over wild!

Are pygmy puffers poisonous?

Probably not. At least, not in the same sense as their larger Fugu cousins. Puffer poison is well understood in popular culture and not just as a recent phenomenon. Even Captain Cook had a run in with the stuff when half of his sailors fell ill from eating puffer flesh and all his pigs died.

The poison in question is Tetrodotoxin, or TTX, a frankly horrific neurotoxin to succumb to. Eat the wrong bits of Fugu and your body shuts off while you remain conscious. All the involuntary muscles such as the heart and diaphragm stop, and you die. You don’t need much of it either. As much as you can carry on the head of a pin will easily kill an adult human.

Female puffers are thought to be more toxic than males, with ovaries being able to store more of the poison than testes.

Marine puffers might make their own toxin from symbiotic bacteria. However, they might gain it through eating other organisms that produce it such as the algae on the shells of certain shellfish. In the confines of a tank, without access to toxic food sources, there’s little reason why we should expect Carinotetraodon to become too much of a health hazard. That said, you still wouldn’t want to eat one. That’d just be silly.

How to set up a Dwarf Indian pufferfish tank step-by-step

I took the chance to rig up a Fluval Fresh 85 l/19 gal system that I have been sat on for a while for my pufferfish foray.

Once filled with sand and décor, I calculated the volume to be closer to 60 l/13 gal of water, which is perfect for a shoal of six Carinotetraodon travancoricus.

Here’s how I did it...

1. The tank is cleaned and placed on pieces of trimmed absorbent matting to balance out any irregularities between glass and cabinet. The filter and lighting are then installed.

2. Two pieces of lava rock are added at one corner to act as the foundation to build up my ‘riverbank’ edge. I have chosen the side with filter pipes to help obscure them.

3. A single central piece of presoaked Redmoor wood is added to provide an intricate structure for the puffers to explore. It is vital to soak this wood in advance to stop floating.

4. Approximately 15kg of thoroughly washed aquarium silver sand is added to the foundation rocks to create a deep bed. The sand is smoothed down with a credit card to shape.

5. A large flat cobble and smaller subordinate cobbles are added to the middle of the tank. They help to reduce 'sandsliding' and create a transition from flat to bank.

6. Loose twigs are added for effect, and the two marginal pond plants, Equisetum japonicum, are removed from their pots, the roots rinsed and then added to the bank to break the surface.

7. The tank is filled and six bunches of assorted Vallisneria sp. are divided up into individual plants and added to the display using pinsettes, but only along the back and side.

8. The heater is added, and floating ‘nuisance’ plants and algae, taken from a retailer’s pond plant vat, added to the surface. These help reduce the impact of the LED lighting.

Key equipment

  • Fluval Fresh 85 l/19 gal aquarium with filtration, heating and LED lighting
  • 15kg aquarium silver sand
  • 1 medium piece Redmoor wood
  • Approximately 6kg of lava rock
  • 4-5kg of assorted cobbles, including one large flat cobble
  • 2 x Equisetum japonicum pond plants
  • 6 x bunched Vallisneria
  • Floating duckweed and algae

On the whole, keeping Carinotetraodon travancoricus is so easy you’ll be left wondering why you don’t have tanks of them all over the house. The only single, difficult aspect is feeding, but as long as you’ve got a freezer, then you can easily overcome that obstacle.

By way of return for meeting their requirements, they’ll reward you with some of the most comedic antics that any fish can muster. Give them time and they might even start to breed for you too, without any extra outside help.

Even an old sourpuss like myself has to admit that I spend way more time watching my puffers during the evening than any other fish I’ve owned, and to date I’ve never been able to second guess quite what they’ll do next. Join the pufferfish camp, and I doubt you’ll ever look back.

Food preferences

Dwarf puffers hate flake foods. Offer it and they’ll look at you with indignation. They’ll potter across for a curious scan over then let that flake slump to the base, where it’ll sit festering.

Bloodworm is never refused, either live or frozen, and other foods are accepted according to individual fish temperaments. Some will also gorge on frozen Daphnia or Cyclops, some will only accept live.

The same applies to brine shrimp and Tubifex. Invest in a mixed pack of frozen foods, such as a quintet with five different ingredients and see which your fish prefer.

Tooth care

Many larger puffers suffer from dentistry issues in aquaria, as their sharp beaks (actually four fused teeth) aren’t worn down from foraging food and crushing mollusc shells. Carinotetraodon succumb less, but it is still something to be aware of, and their diet should include creatures with a hard shell that needs biting through.

Snails are a good choice, and if you know other fishkeepers, I’m sure they’ll be happy to let you take some of theirs away.

Daphnia are another option in helping keep teeth trim and you should make a note to pick up some live ones whenever you see them offered.

Tank size

Their tank need not be particularly big, unless you’re housing a shoal of them, which you definitely should. Wild Dwarf Indians like to move in large collectives; this is why they’re so easy to catch, and they have a migratory, cyclical lifestyle.

Despite their waspish nature to some other fish, they do enjoy the company of their own kind. Because of their adult size of a mere 3.5cm/1.4" for wild caught specimens and an optimistic 2.5–3cm/0.9-1.2" in aquaria, they’re suited to anything around the 60cm/24" long mark.

Keeping them at a density of one fish for every 10 l/2 gal of swimming space is a pretty safe bet, as long as the sex ratios aren’t skewed heavily towards males. Males will bicker and squabble, and there’s some evidence to suggest that in a young group, the first fish to take male sexual development will release pheromones to inhibit the sex changing of its contemporaries.

Filter choice

Water quality needs to be pristine, and an oversized, but underpowered filter is advised. Their wild waters are slow moving and they don’t have the body shape for turbulence. Where other fish may be streamlined and hydrodynamic, cleaving through water like aquatic gazelles, puffers tend to have all the manoeuvrability of an inebriated cow. Opt for filters that can spread any return flow to the tank over a wide area, minimising any fast torrents or eddies.

Biologically speaking, the filter needs to be big as the fish are messy. With vast appetites and an affinity for spitting chunks of food out, expect pollution to be erratic in poorly managed tanks. Getting in to the habit of removing uneaten scraps with a net or siphon hose after each meal is good practice.

Correct chemistry

Water chemistry can be slightly acidic or surprisingly alkaline, with records of the fish being collected in rivers anywhere between 6.8 and 8.3 pH. Hardness is equally diverse, and anywhere between 5 and 25°GH they are fine.

Temperature should sit between 22 and 26°C/72 and 79°F, though wild samplings have revealed fish from rivers in excess of 33°C/92°F during summer months.

Dècor options

Decoration is where the aquarist should be indulgent. Unlike many fish that glide about like automated submarines, oblivious to everything around them, Dwarf Indian puffers need to be enraptured at all times. To them, the world is one fascinating place to be explored on the smallest level, through the medium of eyes and teeth.

Wild habitats involve plenty of leaf litter, marginal vegetation and fallen branches, but in aquaria, anything that can be explored will keep them occupied. Be creative with caves, make dense thickets of plant and add as many anomalies as you like — I’ll even forgive the air-powered scuba divers — and they’ll love you for it.

Aim to break up line of sight in case any bickering does occur. Puffers tend to be angry only for as long as they can see the object of their rage. The moment it’s gone, they’ll swan off in child-like wonderment to look at a plant stem, piece of gravel or upturned leaf instead.

Sexing the dwarf puffer

Sexing Carinotetraodon revolves around colours and markings. 'Wrinkly' eyes, actually a scribble of fine lines around the orbits, indicate males, as does the presence of a clear, dark line that runs lengthways over the belly. Males supposedly have a slightly yellower underside, too.

Add other fish at your peril!

Anything slow or cumbersome will be nibbled, and even fast fish such as danios can receive the occasional sly nip.

Shrimps are generally a no go, unless you want them dismembered, and snails are right out; some keepers have managed it, but they’re certainly the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, each fish has an individual temperament, so I can only advise you to err on the side of caution. I’ve seen Dwarf Indians kept with guppies, gouramis, catfish and even crabs, but I would only ever consider species-only tanks.