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Sea of Cortez 810

Family Tetraodontidae
Class: Actinopterygii (ray-finned)
Order: Tetraodontiformes

Key Features:
Puffers resemble trunkfishes but lack the rigid bodies of the trunfishes.  Instead of armor, puffers rely on a combination of an extremely deadly toxin (tetrodotoxin) and the ability to inflate their bodies for protecion.  The balloonfishes (diodontidae) are often mistakenly lumped in with the puffers, but are a very distinct family.  As compared to the baloonfishes, puffers are often less spiny, less prone to inflation, and have 4 front teeth as opposed to 2 fused teeth in the diodonts.    

Notable Species in the Sea of Cortez

Canthigaster punctatissima
Spotted Sharpnose Puffer
Arothron meleagris
Guineafowl Puffer
Arothron hispidus
Stripebelly Puffer
Sphoeroides annulatus
Bullseye Puffer
Sphoeroides lobatus
Lobeskin Puffer
Sphoeroides lispus
Saddle Puffer

bullseye pufferfish Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico

Sphoeroides annulatus
Bullseye Puffer (juvenile)

Estero Morua - Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico

Family Tetraodontidae
Puffers (Tamborines, botetes)

The term pufferfish is broadly misapplied to a variety of fishes that are able to inflate themselves, including ballonfishes and porcupine fishes, both of which belong in a separate family, Diodontidae.  Proper members of the family Tetraodontidae possess small spines over the surface of their skin, four front teeth, and many secrete a powerful neurotoxin, tetrodotoxin when harassed or molested. 

As a drug, tetrodotoxin is ten thousand times as potent as cocaine… but is also ten thousand times more deadly than cyanide.  Although their flesh is highly prized in some Asian cultures as an aphrodisiac, a great deal of skill is necessary to prepare this dish without killing the customer.  While fugu chefs must be licensed to prepare this delicacy, it is still the number one cause of food poisoning deaths each year in Japan with an estimated 50 deaths annually.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control have reported fatalities following consumption of only 1.4 ounces of puffer flesh.  Quantities of 1-2mg of the toxin are fatal. Even when excellent supportive care is administered, fatality rates exceed fifty percent.   When this author tried a plate of fugu the only appreciable effects on physiology was a mild numbing of the face and mouth an overall feeling of cold clamminess, and a generalized lightness in the wallet - a one hundred and fifty dollar price tag for two bites.
Scuba divers in the Sea of Cortez commonly encounter three species of pufferfishes.  In the northern Gulf the dominant species is the bullseye puffer, Sphoeroides annulatus. A sandy bottom resident, bullseye puffers are found throughout the Puerto Penasco region and on the Baja side the in sand flats of San Felipe.  Within Rocky Point (Puerto Penasco) these fishes will be often buried in the sand, emerging to cruise for crustaceans and clams.  When bullseye puffers find a likely spot for their prey they will go nose down to the sand and begin blowing it away to expose their dinner.  Capable of crushing even the strongest clamshells with their teeth, puffers are a formidable opponent to anything that bothers them.  Juveniles of this species often are found in the protected waters of Estero Morua, an extended estuary near Puerto Penasco. 

In the central Sea of Cortez along the Midriff Islands connecting Guaymas, San Carlos and Bahia Kino to the Baja side and Santa Rosalia, Mulege and Loreto, the spotted sharpnose puffer, Canthigastor punctatissima, is king.  Sharpnose puffers are curious and playful reef dwellers rarely exceeding two and a half inches.  They are often found in pairs, cohabitating their chosen small slice of the reef.  Superficially resembling boxfishes, puffers are similarly poor swimmers but lack the rigid bodies of the trunkfishes.  The range of the sharpnose puffer continues to the southern tip of Baja where they co-exist with another member of the family, the guineafowl puffer, Arothron meleagris

Guineafowl puffers are comical to watch underwater.  Their graceless movements and quizzical expressions give divers endless delight.  While their poor swimming abilities might make them a temptation for a diver to capture and play with, this is an activity not to be undertaken lightly as their extremely strong jaws have been known to quite easily pluck off a diver’s fingernail at the base.  Their jaws possess strong, parrot-like teeth designed for biting off and chewing chunks of the coral reef in which they live.  They are most abundant in the coral reefs near Cabo Pulmo and Bahia Las Frailes. 


Updated August 28, 2009

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