The pufferfish is a species that you may come across in specialist fish stores. If you’re tempted to take one of these aquatic oddities home with you, you’ll need to know more about how to keep them in the aquarium.
There are over 150 species of pufferfish altogether, all of which belong to the Tetraodontidae family of fishes. Pufferfish are found in tropical freshwater, brackish, and marine environments right around the world. Of those, around 30 species live in freshwater, some of which are suitable for life in a home aquarium setting. That said, puffers are not a species that should be taken on by a beginner hobbyist and are best left for experienced aquarists.
In this guide, we’ll focus on the Mbu freshwater puffer.
What is a pufferfish?
Puffers are found in India, Southeast Asia, Bangladesh, Africa, and South America, inhabiting rivers with dense vegetation and lakes.
Pufferfish are most well-known for their ability to literally puff themselves up with water, leaving them looking like a floating, spiny football. This bizarre reaction is thought to be a defense mechanism that’s designed to protect the fish from attack by predators.
All puffers carry a highly poisonous neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, which is the same paralysis-inducing poison that’s found in the deadly blue-ringed octopus. There is no known anti-toxin, and the poison that the fish contains is 1,000 times more deadly than cyanide. Although regarded as a delicacy in Japan, the pufferfish is only prepared by the most highly trained chefs.
The toxin is created by bacteria that the pufferfish gather from their wild diet. However, pufferfish that are kept in an aquarium setting will be toxin-free as their captive diet is different.
The Mbu pufferfish is a species that is native to Cameroon, Zambia, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically the east coast of Lake Tanganyika close to the mouth of the Malagarasi River and the mid to lower sections of the Congo River.
The Mbu is also known as the Giant Green puffer or Giant freshwater pufferfish because of its huge size, reaching a length of up to 30 inches in the wild. So, you can see that these fish are not easy to accommodate in a home aquarium setting and are more commonly seen on display in public aquariums and in zoo collections.
In a wild setting, Mbu’s feed on snails, crustaceans, mollusks, and smaller fish. Like all puffers, Mbu’s have beak-like mouths that are created through the fusing of two teeth from each jaw, hence their scientific name puffer tetraodon Mbu.
Because of that physical feature, captive pufferfish must be fed a diet that includes shelled foods to prevent tooth overgrowth and promote good health. As the fish breaks into the shell to get at the tasty meat inside, it wears down its teeth.
Male and female Tetraodon Mbu puffers look identical.
These fish can grow to measure up to 30 inches long, even in a captive setting. Their bodies are olive green on top, shading to a yellowish-green color underneath. The puffer’s body is decorated with elaborate patterns that resemble white crazy paving.
The fish has beak-like mouth and large, prominent eyes that are sited on the side of its head. The Mbu puffer can also blink or close its eyes, making it one of only a few species that can do that.
Like all puffer species, the Mbu is able to inflate its body up to three times its normal size when alarmed or excited.
Care of the Giant puffer
This species of tropical pufferfish is not the easiest to keep in an aquarium setup, not least because of their size. Don’t be fooled by fish stores that sell juvenile Giant pufferfish of just a few inches in length. Your new pet will quickly outgrow his home, leaving you with a very large problem to solve.
These fish can grow to between 24 and 30 inches in length, even in captivity. So, you will need an aquarium of at least 500 gallons that measures around 96? x 36? x 36? to accommodate a Giant puffer.
For this pufferfish, freshwater is what’s required, rather than salty or brackish conditions.
You can replicate the fish’s natural habitat by providing a sandy substrate that’s littered with driftwood and smooth rocks for decoration. Although they won’t eat your plants, puffers will tear and damage foliage if they spot scraps of food caught on the leaves.
The Tetraodon Mbu is a tropical fish that lives in warm water, so you’ll need to keep the temperature in your tank between 750 and 790 Fahrenheit.
When it comes to water pH, the Tetraodon likes a range of between 7.0 to 8.0 with a hardness of 100 to 250H.
Puffers are highly sensitive to poor water conditions and will become sick if they are exposed to high levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate in the water. These fish do produce an awful lot of waste too, so you will need a very efficient double filter system, and a 50% weekly water change is essential.
Be sure to adjust your filtration system so that the current is not too strong. Puffers are not the strongest of swimmers and may become stressed if buffeted around by powerful water flow.
Diet and nutrition
These fish are primarily molluscivores in their wild environment. However, in the aquarium, the Tetraodon like a varied diet, including live and frozen foods, worms, and all types of shellfish. Always feed unshelled snails and shellfish, including mussels, crab legs, etc to help maintain the fish’s sharp teeth. If the fish’s continuously growing teeth become too long, it will struggle to eat.
Puffers also benefit from the addition of some plant-based food once or twice per week.
To avoid overfeeding, you should feed a fish of this size two to three times per week.
The Mbu puffer is just about the most aggressive tetraodon that you can find. However, these fish do learn to recognize and interact well with their owners, just like a real pet! Your fish will change color, depending on its surroundings or mood, and some actually inflate themselves to get attention, especially when they’re hungry!
Unfortunately, puffers are intolerant and too feisty to be kept in the company of other fish. The sharp beak of these fish can easily cause grievous injury to tankmates and remember that invertebrates, snails, and mollusks will all be regarded as a food source by puffers.
However, the temperament of the fish varies between individuals, and if you do decide to risk introducing tankmates, you will need a massive tank, and the species you choose to share the environment must be sufficiently fast and agile to be able to outswim the puffer.
Note that you cannot keep the Tetraodon Mbu in groups, as they are highly territorial and will fight.
You cannot breed the species in captivity. A home aquarium setup is simply too small and doesn’t provide enough water flow volume for reproduction to take place.
For that reason, most of these fish are wild-caught or bred commercially for the aquarium market.
Health and diseases
Puffers don’t have scales to provide the first line of defense, and that makes them very vulnerable to attack by ectoparasites, including Oodinium, Ichthyobodo, Chilodonella, and Trichodina.
Probably the most common parasite to affect freshwater puffers is the Ichthyophthirius multifiliis ectoparasite, which causes Ich disease. There are many over-the-counter preparations that you can use to treat Ich, and raising the water temperature slightly also helps to kill off the pest.
Whenever you add anything new to your aquarium, including plants and decorations, always clean items thoroughly first. Live food should only be sourced from a reputable supplier, and any new tankmates must be quarantined for at least a week before being introduced to your main setup.
Most fish diseases can be prevented by keeping your tank water scrupulously clean, properly balanced, and at the correct temperature. Also, be sure to feed your fish a high-quality, suitable diet.
In this part of our guide, we answer some of the most commonly asked questions about Mbu puffers.
Q: How big do Mbu puffers get?
A: Mbu puffers are not called Giants for nothing! These fish can grow to a massive 24 to 30 inches in length, even when kept in a tank setting. Male and female fish can both grow to that size. Mbu puffers are generally sold as juveniles, measuring just a few inches long. However, that has led to many of these fish outgrowing their tanks. If you do decide to take on a Mbu puffer, make sure that you have a very large tank that will be big enough to accommodate an adult specimen.
Q: How long do Mbu puffers live?
A: Mbu puffers can live for up to 10 years in captivity, longer in the wild.
Q: Can pufferfish live with other pufferfish?
A: No! Pufferfish are highly aggressive and territorial, making them totally unsuitable for a community aquarium that includes members of their own kind. Any fish that you decide to add to your puffer’s tank must be agile and fast swimmers, otherwise, they stand a very good chance of becoming lunch for the Mbu!
Q: What do Mbu puffers eat?
A: These fish mostly eat mollusks, crustaceans, small fish, and invertebrates in their wild environment. You should replicate that diet as much as possible for aquarium-kept puffers, although the addition of some plant-matter to the diet once or twice a week is beneficial. Frozen food can also be used. Always provide shelled foods so that the fish can grind down its teeth. Overgrown teeth will lead to health problems, and you may need to clip the teeth in extreme cases.
Note that puffers only require feeding two or three times per week. Overfeeding can cause health problems, so don’t be fooled by a puffer that begs for food! These fish have a personality and have been known to interact with their owners, including scrounging for treats by spraying water or puffing themselves up to get attention!
The adult Mbu pufferfish is a characterful, fascinating creature that’s best kept in a large public aquarium setting unless you have the space for a seriously big tank of at least 500 gallons.
If you do decide to take on one of these freshwater giants as a pet, you should know that these do not make good community fish, being highly territorial and aggressive, especially with their own kind.
That said, if you do have your heart set on adding a pufferfish to your collection, there are plenty of smaller species that you might like to consider instead of a Mbu.