Lately, I’ve been concerned about a trend I’ve noticed on Puffer-keeping forums: Aquarists purchase an additional Puffer to prevent the first Puffer that they own from “getting lonely”. In this article, I hope to explain why this is unnecessary, and may even be hazardous for your Puffers.
Many fish species throughout the world school or shoal for protection from predators. By staying together in large numbers, these fish are able to reduce the chances of becoming a meal. Sometimes, young Puffers are found in large groups. However, as they mature these Puffers usually go their separate ways. From this point on, Puffers begin to live a solitary life where interaction with conspecifics is usually limited to mating season and the occasional territorial dispute. There is a very logical reason for this — Puffers are predators! As predators, they spend many hours cruising their territory searching for food. It may be many hours between meals, and if they find an area that is rich with food, they are not going to want another Puffer eating what could be their last meal for days. This is why Puffers declare territory as their own and will occasionally fight to the death to defend it.
In the aquarium, territory is at a premium. Compared to the rivers, estuaries and open oceans that puffers inhabit in the wild, the aquarium is a very small environment. As a territorial family, Puffers require space to call their own. Introducing more than one Puffer into a tank, especially a tank that is too small, is asking for problems. If two Puffers cannot establish clear territories, they will often fight. Depending on species, some will not stop until they kill the other Puffer. After purchasing several puffers, many people will talk about how well the Puffers get along and seem to be best friends. Unfortunately, most newly-purchased Puffers are still very young — probably under a year old. This means they are still immature and focused on surviving into adulthood more than anything else. As they age and mature these “buddies” often start to define territories and if enough space is not provided, they will start to fight over the given space. With some species, such as Tetraodon lineatus, this fighting usually leads to one badly injured Puffer and another dead Puffer. So, as solitary fish that need space, Puffers do not need tankmates.
Perhaps some other fish can live with the Puffer? Well, this really depends on the Puffer species. When it comes to piscivorious Puffers (those whose primary diet is fish), cohabitation with another fish is a death sentence. These Puffers will ambush and kill any tankmates, even those who are much larger than the Puffers themselves! The molluscivores (Puffers who primarily eat crustaceans) may accept tankmates. Some may accept them for life. Others will tolerate tankmates for a while, then one day decide that they want to see how they taste! So, while some Puffers may tolerate other fish, it is best for them to either be kept alone or in a species tank.
Anyone who has kept a Puffer knows that they are not the fastest swimmers in the world. They float around more like a blimp than a torpedo. What does this have to do with keeping them with tankmates? It presents a problem during feeding time. Fish that move much faster than Puffers are often able to consume the majority of the food before Puffers are able to get their share. This is especially true for some of the smaller Puffers, such as C. travancoricus (Dwarf Puffers). To compensate for this inequality in feeding, owners will often overfeed the fish in order to allow the Puffers to get enough to eat. The result is an excessive nutrient load in the aquarium from leftover food rotting in the tank. This situation can lead to algae problems, or even a crash of the tank, and could kill the inhabitants.
It is a common thing for Puffer keepers to give the animals human characteristics. Unlike people, Puffers do not need friends or companions for their well-being. They will not get lonely nor will they become depressed because they do not have another Puffer around. In many cases, quite the opposite is true, and they can be much more personable to their keeper if kept as individuals. As a general rule, most Puffers will live a healthier, happier, less stressful life if there are no other Puffers in their territory.
As with any rule, however, there are always exceptions, and this one has a few. While most species of Puffers do best alone, there are a few that will tolerate tankmates. These exceptions do come with a disclaimer: “Puffers, as a species, are individualistic – and while one Puffer may get along with tankmates, a different Puffer of the same species could be completely intolerant of anything else in their tank.” For this reason, if you decide to keep multiple Puffers in the same tank, you should have an alternative tank available just in case things don’t work out.
The first exception is the popular Dwarf Puffer (Carinotetraodon travancoricus). This Puffer stays small, only reaching 1-1.5 inches. One thing that makes these Puffers unique is that it is easy to determine their gender once they have sexually matured. The males stay smaller and develop a dark brown vertical stripe on their stomachs. Females are usually larger and lack the stripe (Ed note: Males can always be distinguished by their colourful cheek “wrinkle” patterns). If the proper tank is provided (that is, one that supplies at least 2-3 gallons per Puffer), is heavily decorated and has more hideouts than there are Puffers, then keeping 2 or 3 females to one male often works well. In fact, under these circumstances and with proper diet, Dwarf Puffers will often spawn. Dwarf Puffers have been kept successfully with Otocinclus algae eaters. There has also been limited success in keeping Dwarf Puffers with different species of shrimps, such as Amano, Cherry or Ghost shrimp. There is always a risk with shrimp that some Dwarf Puffers will decide that they are food and will eat them.
Another freshwater Puffer that has been kept with conspecifics successfully is the South American Puffer (Colomesus asellus). In large tanks, at least 55 gallons, South American Puffers can be kept in small groups. As with any Puffer, the tank needs to be heavily decorated. The decorations should be set up so that they break up the sight lines in the tank to minimize confrontations. Also, there should be more caves or hiding spots than Puffers in the tank, to prevent them from fighting over a place to sleep or rest.
Tetraodon biocellatus or the Figure Eight Puffer, tends to live longest when kept as an individual. A study done on keeping Figure Eights demonstrated that individuals live much longer than those housed together. The oldest individual in the study lived for more than 18 years! However, they have been kept with Bumblebee Gobies (Brachygobius nunas). These Gobies stay very small and generally keep to themselves. They are also excellent scavengers and do a good job of cleaning up the mess that the Puffers often create when eating. Figure Eight Puffers and Bumblebee Gobies are a good mix because they have very similar environmental requirements. Both will do best in lightly brackish water with a specific gravity around 1.005. It must be noted that occasionally, especially in a tank that is under-decorated, Figure Eights will decide to taste their Goby tankmates.
The Green-Spotted Puffer (Tetraodon nigroviridis) and the Ceylon Puffer (Tetraodon fluviatilis) are other exceptions. When given the proper environment, these two species will often cohabitate without a problem. Often, multiples of the two species can be kept together as well. As a reminder, for this to work well, the tank must be well decorated, with plenty of hiding places and lots of space. For these larger Puffers, they need at least 30 gallons per Puffer. If kept in anything smaller, there is a much greater risk of fighting and territorial issues.
There are several things to consider when keeping multiple Puffers of the above species in the same tank. First, always add Puffers of the youngest age and smallest possible equal size. Young Puffers tolerate each other better and are more likely to get along throughout their lives. Second, always add them at the same time. Adding a new Puffer to an established Puffer tank is a sure way to get the Puffers to fight, and possibly kill each other. If the need should ever arise to add a Puffer to an established tank, the best way to do it is to remove the established puffer, redecorate the entire tank and then reintroduce both Puffers. Unfortunately, even this may not be enough. For this reason and simply because Puffers are so unpredictable, alternative housing arrangements should always be available.
While all of these Puffers have been kept together with either conspecifics or other fish, it is always a risk. These fish are, first and foremost, predators — and that instinct will never go away. Always have a spare tank ready to go in case things begin to go bad. Minor disputes between new tankmates are completely normal as they set up territory and adjust to the captive environment. Should the fighting continue for a prolonged time or become worse, the Puffers should immediately be separated to prevent any permanent damage or death.
I hope that this article helps to dispel a few of the common misconceptions present in the hobby regarding Puffers’ social habits. Please feel free to PM me if you have any further questions on this topic.
Ricketts, Robert T. Figure Eight Puffers: A Great Small Brackish Fish.