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A Guineafoul Pufferfish during its rarely seen 'golden' phase, has no need for camouflage.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

January 8, 2001
The Amazing Pufferfish
  Real Audio
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey.
Today while diving one of the many splendid coral reefs of the tropical pacific, we encountered this brilliantly colored golden fish. We believe it was a 'Guineafowl' puffer fish, normally a clearly brown puffer with white spots, except during a phase of their development when they are bright yellow with the spots completely obscured. This puffer is relatively uncommon and rarer still to see during this golden phase. At least 21 species of puffer fish occur here in Micronesia, and the crew has encountered them frequently on our numerous diving and snorkeling trips, but this is our first golden puffer.

This comical fish is known around the world by a variety of names, puffer, blowfish, globefish, swellfish or in Japanese, 'fugu'. When eaten, it is one of the deadliest known fish in the ocean. In some countries, this distinctive little fish is considered a delicacy. In Japan, this delicious fish is worshipped as the epitome in specialty dining. However, one mistake in preparation means the puffer can literally be 'ones last supper'. The lives of the diners are in the hands of rigorously trained chefs, yet the fatalities continue. Sentiments echoed in this traditional Japanese verse " Last night he and I ate 'fugu' Today I help carry his coffin" So why do some Japanese gourmets deliberately and in some cases, wantonly expose themselves to this game of gastronomic Russian roulette? Some claim it is for the taste, particularly for the delicate raw flesh of the Tiger 'fugu', which is prized above all others. Some choose to tempt fate even further by consuming the toxic liver, the most poisonous part of the fish for which there is no antidote and where methods of detoxification are unreliable!

If eaten, the poison contained in the skin, viscera or gonads can induce an almost complete cessation of outward signs of life as the nervous system shuts down The victim is fully conscience yet unable to move, this is in fact the origin of so called 'zombie' stories. Victims have been known to be buried alive when they were mistakenly presumed dead, only to recover and find themselves entombed. Some have escaped their cruel fate and clawed their way to freedom, who knows how many others have not?

There are approximately 100 species of puffer fish known to exist in closely related families worldwide. All of whom when threatened, annoyed or excited, balloon into a sphere up to three times larger than their regular size and shape. The puffer has the ability to gulp air or water into a specialized chamber in the abdomen, swelling their tough scaless skin in an attempt to discourage predators. Upon feeling secure, the innocuous little fish squirts out the water or air, deflating to its normal size once again.

In the inhabited central and northern Gilbert Islands in Kiribati, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, the Gilbertese used porcupine fish, a species of puffer, as a form of headdress in times of war. The puffer would be caught and left to inflate, and would then be buried in the sand. Upon retrieval up to a week later, only a hard empty inflated ball remained. It was then split down the center and placed over a coconut shell, where upon it made a functional, protective helmet to be placed upon the heads of warriors. The porcupine puffer is a somewhat fierce looking spiky fish when inflated, one assumes they were therefore used as a form of intimidation to the enemy. In fact when sharks eat these spiny porcupines, the fish will inflate itself inside the mouth of its enemy, digging its sharp spikes into the soft tissue of the mouth and throat; consequently the puffer is expelled.

From deadly toxins, to inflation, to sharp spikes, the defense mechanisms of the preposterous puffer may go some way to help explain why the little golden puffer we dove with today, moved along the reef with such confidence and indifference. It made no attempt to conceal itself from the assemblage of patrolling sharks. The behavior of the puffer appeared to be in stark contrast to that of most of the other reef inhabitants, who have spent generations perfecting their methods of camouflage, or who simply spend the daylight hours hiding amongst the nooks and crannies of the coral reef.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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