Trivia 029: Pudge controls the weather

Hello all. I know that you missed me last week. I wish that I could say that I was busy with work or struck with a sudden illness, but in reality I just forgot. My bad. So, to make it up to you, there’s going to be two posts this week! This is the first one; the second should be arriving soon. On with the trivia!

Whenever I travel, I love to visit aquaria (plural of ‘aquarium’). I love watching the fish swim around. If I had to pick which ones are my favorites, I would definitely have to include whale sharks, rays of all sorts, and pufferfish.

This pufferfish at the Albuquerque Aquarium was always very photogenic.

One day, a few years back, I was visiting the Seattle Aquarium with a friend. As we were walking past one of the tanks, all of a sudden *BAM!*, there was a loud sound next to me. I looked around to discover that one of the pufferfish in the tank had suddenly ballooned up. I’m not sure why it decided to suddenly inflate, perhaps the bang I heard was another fish (or a child) hitting the glass near it. Maybe he was just angry because it was sandwich day and they didn’t have any peanut butter. It was the first time I’d seen such a thing occur. What really surprised me was the rapidity with which it happened. I had just turned away from the tank, but by the time I turned back it was already fully inflated.

This poor fellow is the one that inflated when I turned away after getting this photograph.

Pufferfish inflate by gulping large quantities of water into their stomachs through their mouth. As they do so, their stomachs expand greatly, in some cases becoming up to three times larger. This is usually enough to prevent enemies from eating them, despite their slow speed and low maneuverability. In order to accomplish this impressive defense, the pufferfish has evolved a number of rather unique adaptations. First, their stomachs are folded on themselves many times over. This allows them to expand without rupturing. They also lack rib bones, which could cause damage to their organs when they inflate. They also have special muscles in their mouth and throat in order to pull in water and keep it trapped. All this intense activity can put lots of strain on a pufferfish, so please do not try to make one puff up if you see one.

Many, but not all, pufferfish have sharp spines which further dissuade predators from attempting a bite. And even if they are eaten, most species of pufferfish secrete a lethal neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, which has no known antidote. Some species store enough toxin to kill thirty people at once.

Despite their intense defenses, I think of pufferfish as lovers, not fighters. They just want to get along in a dangerous ocean. And if you want proof of that, look no further than the incredible art the white-spotted pufferfish makes in the seafloor as a part of its courtship ritual. Or maybe it’s what they use to control the weather.

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