The Tetraodon Baileyi
Everybody loves a Pufferfish. And what fishkeeper in their right mind wouldn’t? These adorable creatures got their name from their unique ability to fill their body with air or water when threatened, making themselves bigger than they actually are to discourage would-be predators. This unusual way to defend themselves is unique to members of the Pufferfish family.
Pufferfish are widespread around the world and inhabit freshwater, brackish water, and saltwater lakes, rivers, deltas, and seas. The Philippines has a host of Pufferfish that are found in our native waters; however, most are saltwater species.
In our local aquarium fish market, there are some freshwater or brackish water Pufferfish readily available to the Filipino fishkeeper. The Figure Eight Pufferfish (Tetraodon biocellatus) and the Green Spotted Pufferfish (T nigroviridis) are two of the most common Pufferfish that we regularly see in fish stores. They are mostly available year round and at a rather cheap price. Once in a while, we do get some species that are not always available. One such fish is the Hairy Pufferfish (Tetraodon baileyi).
A distinct behavior of the T baileyi is with the way it “puffs up.” While all Pufferfish do this, the degree of puffiness very much varies from species to species. Some species like the Mbu Pufferfish (T mbu), Fahaka Pufferfish (T lineatus) and Orange Saddle Fugu Puffer (Takifugu ocellatus), among others, generally have long body shapes, and only the section around the belly puffs up. The Figure Eight Pufferfish (T biocellatus) and the Green Spotted Pufferfish (T nigroviridis) are more “generous” in puffing.
But the T baileyi and others like the Humpback Pufferfish (T palembangensis) and Arrowhead Pufferfish (T suvattii) are normally rectangular in shape but puff up to a perfect round ball, with eyes and mouths looking like slits because the body is so distendedly round. The fish becomes two to three times its normal size. Personally, I feel the T baileyi is quick to the draw when it comes to puffing. Almost always they will puff up when you catch them. Thus it is wise to use a net big enough to accommodate the large size they will become; otherwise, they may literally get stuck in the net. But just as quickly as they puff up, the T baileyi, in my experience, deflates the fastest too.
I have kept different kinds of Pufferfish in my lifetime and I would say the T baileyi deserves a place on my list of favorite Pufferfish. They are easy to keep. They are cute. They are exotic… they are a Pufferfish after all, with a lot of “hair.”
Hair, There, But Not Everywhere
The discovery of the T baileyi is attributed to Thai ichthyologist Suebsin Sontirat, who first described the species in 1985. True to its name, the T baileyi is indeed hairy. It can have sparse or dense coverage of these epidermal outgrowths called cirri on the head and body, making it appear hairy.
It is said that males have more of these cirri than females. Likewise, it is said that juveniles tend to have more of these than adults. But studies are not conclusive on these two facts. Fishkeepers are in agreement, however, that T baileyi is indeed hairy. This key distinct feature (KDF) will positively identify the T baileyi from other species of Pufferfish.
The T baileyi is generally brown in color. Some specimens are lighter in color, and others are darker. The belly is golden to orange in color. The cirri are most abundant in the face and in some parts on the body. The cirri on the T baileyi are soft and limp when touched, unlike the spines of the saltwater Porcupine Pufferfish, belonging to the family Diodontidae (order Tetraodontiformes), which are hard and prickly. These cirri give the Pufferfish the look of a man needing a shave because he has week-old stubble.
There has been continuous debate on the purpose of these cirri. I tend to believe however that the cirri are for camouflage. When the T baileyi is curled up and perched on the substrate, it doesn’t resemble a fish at all (well, Pufferfish have bizarre body shapes, so they do not look like most fish in the first place!) but rather, a rock with some moss on it. If it doesn’t move, the T baileyi will blend with its surroundings and be difficult to recognize.
Where It’s From
The T baileyi originates from the Mekong basin in Thailand and Laos. It inhabits rocky habitats, including the rapids of the Mekong mainstream and its larger tributaries. This is quite unusual since Pufferfish are not particularly strong swimmers and may not have the body shape that will be ideal for dealing with swift river systems. But these fast flowing waters seem to be their preferred environment.
T baileyi is a medium sized Pufferfish that grows to a maximum size of 5 inches or about 12 centimeters (cm). Thus, a single specimen may be kept in a tank as small as 20 gallons. The T baileyi is generally aggressive and intolerant of other fishes; thus, it is best kept alone. Its most formidable weapon is its beak-like teeth, which can easily bite off chunks from other fishes, or in extreme cases, rip them to pieces. Like most Pufferfish, the first bite will decapitate its prey, so it will be easy pickings from there. It is a savage little creature if given an opportunity to mangle its tankmates.
But Is It Vicious?
It is said that the T baileyi is also very aggressive towards conspecifics and should never be kept in groups. I experienced this aggression towards its own kind firsthand. My first specimens came in a group of three. They were packed individually but since the plastic bags had accidentally been bitten and were leaking, I immediately placed the three of them in an aquarium. As I went to the trash bin to discard the plastic bags, I saw the biggest one bite the smallest one. Before I could reach it, the big one was already making a meal out of the small one. So I had to separate the two before another murder could take place.
But with my next set of T bailey, quite the opposite happened. As I came to pick up my order of four from my supplier, I was surprised to see them all peacefully coexisting in one tank. So they were packed in one bag and I set them in one tank. To this day, I still have them in one 50-gallon tank, generally minding their own business with no aggression towards each other. Of course, feeder fishes are not treated with the same kindness as they are voraciously attacked and gobbled up quite greedily.
Personally, I am quite dumbfounded by their conspecific behavior. Are they really aggressive towards each other, or are they peaceful with one another? Quite frankly, my answer is, “I do not know.” Putting them together in one tank is very risky, with dire consequences. As each bite is very much damaging, I highly recommend to just keep them in solo tanks.
Speedy But Messy
In the aquarium, the T baileyi is qu
ite timid and prefers to hang around near rocks and driftwood. Occasionally, they may swim around the bottom and mid-levels of the tank. They hover about the tank gently undulating their dorsal and pectoral fins. However, they may also dart away quickly when the
y decide to use that big paddle-like tail to good use. When startled or attacking prey, the T baileyi can zip across the tank in an instant.
This sudden burst of speed is, of course, highly observable when feeding, which is a sight that amazes most Pufferfish keepers. Feeding the T baileyi is limited to meat. It is a carnivore and will eat animal food and not plants. Their diet consists of live or non-live fish, crustaceans, or mollusks. Like all Pufferfish, they must be given hard food like unshelled shrimp, crabs, snails, mussels, etc. This is to prevent their teeth from growing too long. If left unchecked, the teeth may develop an overbite and it will not be able to eat properly. It is therefore wise to feed them these hard foods so the continuously growing teeth may be kept ground down.
The T bailey is a messy eater. They often leave behind bits of food because Pufferfish munch on their food and not swallow their prey whole like most predatory fishes do. It is quite common to see bits of crustacean shells littering the bottom of the Pufferfish tank and small bits of uneaten food strewn around the tank. Because of their barbaric eating manners, it is best to have a strong filter and regular tank maintenance of 30% water change done twice a week.
The T baileyi is best kept in water with a pH range of 6.5 to 7.5, with water hardness (dGH) of 4 to 20 (70 to 350ppm) and a water temperature of 25°C to 30°C. These water parameters are quite easy to achieve for the average Filipino fishkeeper in local conditions. As per my experience, the T baileyi is one of the easier Pufferfish to keep in the home aquarium.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s July 2017 issue.