The checkered puffer, Sphoeroides
testudineus, is one of several fish species in Florida
belonging to the family Tetradontidae, meaning "four teeth".
Puffers have four tooth plates arranged in quadrants, with two
teeth on the bottom and two on the top (Carpenter 2002). These
teeth form a strong, heavy beak capable of cracking through
hard prey such as mollusks and crustaceans. Puffers are named
for their ability to swell by swallowing water or air when threatened.
They have no spinous dorsal fin, absent or reduced scales, sandpapery
denticles on various areas of the body, and a reduced gill opening.
Identification of species is determined in part through color,
pattern, and the presence and number of spines and fleshy tabs,
or lappets, on the skin (Robins & Ray 1986). The checkered
puffer is pale tan to yellowish with a polygonal or square network
of lines centered around a bulls-eye pattern on the midback
in front of the dorsal fin. Lines are dark gray to olive, with
small, dark brown spots on cheeks and lower sides. The abdomen
is whitish and unmarked. Dark bands are present on the caudal
Potentially Misidentified Species:
Several species of puffers inhabit the
waters of the IRL. In addition to S. testudineus, three
other Florida puffer species belong to the genus Sphoeroides
are found in the IRL. These include: the northern puffer, S.
maculatus; the southern puffer, S.
nephelus; and the bandtail puffer, S. spengleri.
The northern puffer is olive-gray with many black spots and
6-7 vertical gray areas on the side (Robins & Ray 1986).
It has a black bar between the eyes and prickles on the skin
of the tail. S. maculatus grows to a maximum length
of 36 cm, slightly larger than the checkered puffer. The southern
puffer is similar to S. maculatus, but lacks the black
spots on the sides and dorsal surface. Instead, pale tan rings
or semicircles cover this area, and larger dark spots are variable
on the sides. Dark slashes are sometimes present on the lower
half of the cheek, and prickles are found on the posterior ventral
surface near or at the anus. The bandtail puffer is usually
dark brown above, with pale sides and white underneath. A row
of large brownish black spots extends from the chin to the caudal-fin
base on the lower sides, separate from the dark dorsal color.
Many tan, fleshy tabs are present near the rear of the body.
At only 18 cm, the reported maximum size for S. spengleri
is much less than that of the checkered puffer.
II. HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
The checkered puffer ranges from Rhode
Island to Florida, Bermuda, and the southeast Gulf of Mexico
to the southeastern coasts of Brazil (Robins & Ray 1986).
It is common in bays, seagrass beds, tidal creeks, mangrove
swamps, and into freshwater areas (Figueiredo & Menezes
The checkered puffer is distributed
throughout the IRL. Most populations are found in association
with seagrass beds and mangroves, although some individuals
occur in rocky intertidal and hardbottom areas as well.
III. LIFE HISTORY
AND POPULATION BIOLOGY
Age, Size, Lifespan:
Information concerning the maximum age
and average lifespan of S. testudineus is lacking.
Growth rates vary with environmental conditions, food availability
and other factors. The maximum reported size for the checkered
puffer is 30 cm (Robins & Ray 1986), but most specimens
are much smaller.
Little information is available on the
abundance of S. testudineus. However, it is a common
species found in many estuarine habitats. Juveniles are frequently
caught in seagrass beds and around mangrove roots. The checkered
puffer is listed as one of eight dominant fish species in coastal
waters of Yucatan, Mexico (Vega-Cendejas & de Santillana
Reproduction & Embryology:
Information on the reproductive biology
and embryological development of the checkered puffer is lacking.
However, much work has been completed on the reproduction and
culture of a similar species, the Mexican bullseye puffer, Sphoeroides
annulatus (eg. Sanchez et al. 2008).
The bullseye puffer is considered a total spawner, spawning
only once per year in Mexico. No sexual dimorphism exists in
this species, but females are identified by their swollen abdomens
during the spawning season. Eggs of several puffer species are
demersal and adhesive, sinking to the benthos after fertilization.
The saddled toby, Canthigaster valentini, and the sharpnose
puffer, C. rostrata, both release eggs that become
hidden in benthic algae (Gladstone 1987, Sikkel 1990). The grass
puffer, Takifugu niphobles, lays eggs under pebbles
in the intertidal zone (Yamahira 1997). Puffers lay varying
numbers of eggs, depending on species, individual size and other
factors. Females of S. annulatus lay 600,000 to 1,600,000
eggs per kg of fish, usually measuring less than 1 mm in diameter
(Duncan et al. 2003, Sanchez et al. 2008).
IV. PHYSICAL TOLERANCES
The range of the checkered puffer extends
throughout temperate, tropical and subtropical waters. In addition,
shallow estuarine habitats in which S. testudineus occurs
likely subjects the fish to large temperature fluctuations seasonally,
during tidal cycles, episodes of heavy precipitation and runoff.
Puffers have the ability to regulate the
osmolality, or ionic concentration of substances such as sodium
and chloride, in their plasma. This capacity allows them to
thrive in a wide range of salinities. The checkered puffer is
common in waters ranging from 0 to over 67 ppt (Lopes 2000,
Vega-Candejas & de Santillana 2004).
V. COMMUNITY ECOLOGY
Puffers are voracious predators, using
their powerful beak-like teeth to crush hard-shelled prey. The
diets of checkered puffers in south Florida vary with size (Targett
1978). Puffers 72-149 mm feed mostly on gastropods, brachyuran
crabs and small numbers of bivalves. Fish larger than 150 mm
consume mostly crabs and bivalves. Other prey items frequently
found in gut contents of S. testudineus include amphipods,
hermit crabs, seagrasses, detritus, isopods, sipunculids, barnacles
Although some larger fishes and birds likely
prey on puffers, the ability of these fishes to swell with water
or air reduces predation risk by greatly increasing overall
The checkered puffer has no known obligate
associations. However, as inhabitants of a variety of coastal
ecosystems, checkered puffers are associated with several organisms
common to mangroves, seagrass beds and rocky intertidal zones.
For lists of other species found throughout the ecosystems in
which S. testudineus occurs, please refer to the "Habitats
of the IRL" link at the left of this page.
VI. SPECIAL STATUS
Prohibited fishery in Florida. See below.
Economic History & Toxicity:
During World War II, the checkered puffer
became an important source of protein for people living of the
east coast of the US. Its use spurred a commercial fishery that
flourished for decades, based in Virginia, Maryland, New York
and New Jersey (Sibunka & Pacheco 1981). Marketed as "sea
squab", over 6,000 metric tons of puffer fish was landed in
1965 (Deeds et al. 2008). Today, the commercial market
has collapsed, but checkered puffer is often caught by recreational
anglers and fresh catch can still be found in some US fish markets
(Sibunka & Pacheco 1981).
One difficulty with puffer fisheries is
the prevalence of saxitoxins (STX) and tetrodotoxins (TTX) that
often occur in the tissues of the fish. STX are produced from
toxic dinoflagellates such as Pyrodinium bahamense
(Landsberg et al. 2006), which often grow on sediments,
rocks, seagrass and algae. Puffers inadvertently ingest these
microorganisms when they feed on benthic macrofauna. Toxins
are then sequestered in the skin, muscles and viscera of the
fish (Landsberg et al. 2006). In addition to STX, TTX
are found in many organisms, including: several species of puffers;
the seastar, Astropecten polycanthus; the horseshoe
crab, Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda; the crab, Atergatis
floridus; the calcareous red alga, Jania sp.;
and the California newt, Taricha torosa (eg.
Simidu et al. 1987). In most cases, TTX is produced
from bacteria of the genus Vibrio (Lee et al.
2000; Simidu et al. 1987, 1990).
Both STX and TTX are powerful neurotoxins
that cannot be destroyed by cooking, thus causing Puffer Fish
Poisoning (PFP) upon ingestion of infected tissue. Symptoms
of PFP include: numbness of lips, tongue, face, hands and feet;
salivation; nausea and vomiting; diarrhea and abdominal pain;
motor dysfunction and speech difficulties; seizures; paralysis;
and death, usually resulting from respiratory failure (Benzer
2007). Toxins from S. testudineus have even been controversially
reported as causes of zombification in Haiti (Davis 1988, Littlewood
& Douyon 1997). Some puffers in the IRL have been found
to contain both STX and TTX, resulting in several cases of illness
and a few reported deaths from PFP (eg. Deeds et
al. 2008). In April 2002, the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission (FWC) prohibited the taking of puffers
from the waters of Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie
and Martin counties. The ban remains in effect as of the date
of this report.
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Report by: LH Sweat, Smithsonian Marine Station
at Fort Pierce
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Page last updated: 4 August 2009
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