Everyone's favorite South Florida checkered puffer or Sphoeroides testudineus, is a prominent fixture in mangrove estuaries. This cute fish belongs to Tetradontidae family, a group of fish with fused teeth that resemble parrot's beak. The beak is formed by four teeth that continue to grow throughout its life. Just like it's name suggests, checkered puffer can inflate itself when threatened. It's a common feature of most Tetradontids. However, if you see it, please don't harass it. Inflation is pretty stressful to them. It can even be harmful if they inflate themselves with air, instead of water (they have hard time expelling air)
Ann Kolb Center has 4 checkered puffers on display in their exhibit hall. These are not only cute, but also extremely smart. Which makes sense, give the fact that they are highly predatory. Their main diet consists of fiddler crabs, mangrove crabs, and various snails. Their unique teeth are a direct adaptation to this diet. They have no problem crushing shells, crabs, shrimps, and even taking bites out slow moving fish.
Unlike other members of Tetradontidae, which can't tolerate each other, checkered puffers are somewhat social. They are often seen swimming around in pairs. This is really surprising, given the violent nature of most other puffer species.
A Pair of Juvenile Checkered Puffers in Ann Kolb Nature Center Exhibit Hall
Just like other puffer species, Sphoeroides testudineus is extremely toxic when ingested due to the tetradotoxin (named after the actual puffers). Tetradotoxin is a potent neurotoxin that prevents nervous system from carrying messages though the body. This is due to the fact that tetradotoxin is sodium channel blocker. Most common sign of puffer fish poisoning are shortness of breath, tingling or numbing of tongue, lips, face, arms, fingertips. There is no antidote, so the only treatment is mostly supportive. If a person survives the first 24 hours, recovery without any residual effects usually occurs over the next few days. However, the puffers are only dangerous if eaten. You will not experience any ill effect while handling them.
Checkered Puffer in the Tidal Tank: Resting after a large meal
There are a lot of the tiny checkered puffers in West Lake Park. If you look close, you can see them swimming around black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) pneumatophores. These little guys are very inquisitive. Always on the move, looking for shrimps and snails. They also like to bury themselves in sand in order to rest or to ambush their prey.
Baby Wild Sphoeroides testudineus in West Lake Park
If you would like to observe the amazing little fish, come to Ann Kolb Nature Center or try to observe the in their native habitat in the West Lake Park or any other natural mangrove area.
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