Are Puffer Fish Reef-Safe?

Puffer fish can be reef-safe if you choose the right combination of species for your tank.  

Because of their attractive appearance and colors, puffer fish are popular among aquarists. However, it is important to understand the potential risks of keeping these fish in a reef tank.

Let’s discuss what “reef-safe” means before discussing how you can safely add puffer fish to a reef aquarium, and which species you should consider choosing. 

What Does “Reef-Safe” Mean?

Fish considered “reef-safe” do not feed on corals or invertebrates like snails, shrimp, clams, and crabs when put in a tank. 

In this context, reef safety points to the chances of survival of invertebrates, small fish, and corals in an aquarium. 

If a tank is not reef-safe, these creatures will constantly be attacked or eaten by larger fish.  

While some species are known for feeding on smaller fish, pretty corals, sponges, and invertebrates, it does not mean all fish belonging to other species are 100% reef-safe.

Fish demonstrate unique personalities, behaviors, and interactions when kept in a tank. Many of those considered reef-safe can still behave aggressively when made to live with certain species. 

So, the only way to minimize or prevent damage or loss of life in the tank is by choosing the right tank size and animal species. 

You should be aware of common predators in a reef tank before you decide to put particular species under the same roof.     

Common Predators in a Reef Tank: Are Puffer Fish One of Them?

Most, if not all, fish considered unsafe for smaller species and corals in a reef aquarium are carnivorous and predatory. 

These fish have the instinct to hunt and feed on smaller fish and invertebrates whenever they get a chance. 

Also, when they try to attack the tiny creatures hiding in living corals, the reef gets damaged over time. You would not want this type of situation going on in your fish tank.  

That said, triggerfish are among the most aggressive predators in a reef tank. If you pair one with smaller creatures, they will become its prey sooner or later. 

You can keep a few larger predators together to form a community if you like but make sure you do not add any smaller fish to the tank.   

As far as puffer fish are concerned, they also fall into the predator category, with their large front teeth that can easily chew hard shells. 

However, you can still keep them with smaller creatures in a reef tank if you choose them carefully. 

Types of Puffer Fish and Their Behavior

Puffer fish is an umbrella term that encompasses dozens of species and varieties of fish. 

The name “puffer” comes from their ability to inflate their bodies by taking in water (and sometimes air), which makes them appear larger and helps protect them from predators. 

This innate behavior can be a problem in a reef tank if you do not feed your puffer fish enough, or fail to properly maintain water quality. 

When these fish do not get the nutrition they need, they can start eating corals, causing damage to the delicate balance of the tank.

Additionally, the inflation of the fish can disrupt the water flow, negatively affecting other tank inhabitants.

It is also important to note that puffer fish, being toxic saltwater creatures, produce toxins from the bacteria in their food. 

This makes them poisonous for predators, to ensure safety in the wild. Those born and raised in captivity are not toxic, though. 

Similarly, the size of a puffer fish can vary depending on the particular species and environment it belongs to.

For example, dwarf puffer fish only grow up to an inch in length, whereas others may be two to three feet long.

Essentially, all puffer fish are territorial and aggressive. They like to hunt their prey, and some even wait to ambush smaller creatures from hiding spots in the tank. 

For them, eating shellfish, snails, and other mollusks and crustaceans is a way to prevent tooth overgrowth. 

Certain species are also known to feed on the coral reef. 

If you want to add a puffer fish to your reef tank, it is important to research the species thoroughly before making a decision. 

Some may be more aggressive than others, posing a greater risk to fellow tank inhabitants, thereby not deemed reef-safe. 

If you choose right, it may be possible to keep certain types of puffer fish in a reef tank, but most of them are best suited to live alone.

4 Puffer Fish Species That You Should Avoid Keeping in a Reef Tank

There are over a hundred species of puffer fish in the world. Most of them are not reef-safe. 

Only keep the smaller ones in a reef tank to avoid unpleasant surprises. This may include Toby puffers (but not always). 

Figure 8 and green spotted puffers could also work, but we can’t generalize and assume that every fish belonging to these species will live peacefully in a reef tank. 

That said, below are a few puffer fish species that we know are NOT reef-safe.   

1. Blue Spot Puffer Fish

This type of puffer fish is suitable for fish-only tanks. They tend to nibble and feed on corals and spread poison throughout the tank. 

To raise these fish, you should maintain a single environment in the tank and not add any coral.   

2. Porcupine Puffer Fish

As cute as they may look, porcupine puffer fish are known to produce toxins and nip on coral when kept in a reef tank. 

They also like to feed on tiny invertebrates, so you can’t keep them with small creatures in your aquarium. With bigger fish, they will be fine. 

Like blue spot puffers, porcupine puffer fish are best suited for fish-only environments.     

3. Valentini Puffer Fish

This species is toxic and should never be kept in a reef tank. Valentinis also like to feed on shrimp, snails, and corals. 

In fish-only environments, you can raise them with any species, as they are mostly calm and tend to get along well with other fish. 

4. Dogface Puffer Fish

These fish are extremely aggressive and will prey on smaller invertebrates every chance they get. Hence, they are not reef-safe. 

You can keep them in a tank with other aggressive or territorial fish, though, as they are super active, outgoing, and fun. 

Things to Keep in Mind When Raising Puffer Fish in a Reef Tank 

Some fishkeepers and aquarium enthusiasts have success stories to tell about keeping puffer fish in reef tanks. This means you, too, can raise yours in one. 

Although it is best to keep all puffer fish in fish-only environments where all tankmates are the same size as them, you can maintain a reef-safe tank with some species of puffer fish. 

Here are a few things to consider before taking the leap.

  • Choose Smaller Species 

Your puffer fish should not be the biggest species in the tank. Otherwise, it will bully, injure, or eat the smaller fish and invertebrates. 

You can make your reef tank a lot safer for the tiny creatures by choosing smaller species of puffer fish. 

The best candidates are Tobies and saddles, as they grow no more than three or four inches in captivity. 

However, ensuring the tank is safe for other dwellers will still require supervision and proper care.

For starters, you should consciously try picking large crustaceans and shrimp that can defend themselves to prevent puffer fish from attacking them. 

This is important because even the smaller puffers have innate predatory instincts. 

  • Choose the Right Tank Size and Maintain It Properly

If you plan to keep smaller puffer fish with corals only, a tank from 50 to 70 gallons will work fine.  

But if you want to add other fish, make sure you have at least a 125-gallon tank so all inhabitants can live comfortably. 

Do add rocks and other structures that provide hiding spots for your fish. Also, you must ensure the sand and gravel that goes into the tank is clean, so there is no risk of toxicity. 

  • Avoid Invertebrates That Make a Tasty Snack for Puffer Fish

Sea snails, clams, crabs, shrimp, and crustaceans are a part of puffer fish’s natural diet. You can’t expect your fish not to eat them after you present them as treats in a closed environment. 

Puffer fish love searching for tasty snacks and will easily gobble down many small invertebrates. 

The only invertebrates you should add to your reef tank are those bigger than or equally as large as your puffer fish, or those with natural defenses. 

  • Feed the Puffer Fish on a Regular Schedule before and after Mixing Them with Other Creatures

Some fishkeepers manage to raise puffer fish with smaller fish and invertebrates in the same tank by ensuring they are well-fed at all times. 

The key is to follow a regular feeding schedule for your puffers, so they know they will get to eat without expending their energy looking for food.

The trick here is not to introduce the smaller creatures until your puffer fish are accustomed to a regular feeding schedule. 

Stick to the same plan after mixing the other fish and invertebrates with them. 

Summing It Up

Despite the potential risks, puffer fish can be a great addition to your reef tank if you take proper precautions.  

By choosing compatible species in the right size, monitoring the tank environment, and feeding the fish regularly, you can safely add puffers to your reef tank. 

Always go for the smaller puffer fish and try to understand their tendencies and eating habits to prevent other creatures from becoming their prey.  

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