Potentially Misidentified Species:
The distributions of Sphoeroides nephelus and the northern puffer,
S. maculatus, overlap along the northern half of Florida (including
northern portions of the IRL). These congeners are similar in appearance,
although southern puffers lack the dark spots and diffuse gray bars
characteristic of the northern puffer (Robins et al. 1986). Ray counts,
interorbital distance, and habitat and ecology also aid in differentiation
of the two species. Adult S. nephelus remain inshore whereas adult
S. maculatus typically are collected offshore, and usually only
juveniles of the two species are collected together (Shipp and Yerger
II. HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Sphoeroides nephelus occurs from northeast Florida south through
much of the Caribbean and into the eastern half or the Gulf of Mexico
(Shipp and Yerger 1969). Hoese and Moore (1977) extends the distribution
to the Chandeleur Islands and off Yucatan. Robins et al. (1986) notes that
the taxonomic status of populations reported from northern South America to
Brazil is uncertain.
Southern puffers can be found throughout the IRL system.
III. LIFE HISTORY AND POPULATION BIOLOGY
Age, Size, Lifespan:
Southern puffers commonly reach a length of 20 cm, although larger
specimens up to 30 cm have been reported (Hoese and Moore 1977, Froese and
Hoese and Moore (1977) note that this species is the common puffer in the
northeastern Gulf of Mexico, and it is common along the east coast of
Florida as well.
Reproduction is sexual; sexes are separate and fertilization is external.
Springer and Woodburn (1960) reported Sphoeroides nephelus is a fall
spawner, but Shipp and Yerger (1969) suggest more continuous spawning at
least from spring through fall and possibly year-round within southern
portions of the range.
Developmental details are sparse for this species. Other tetraodontids lay demersal eggs that they
attach to rock and coral surfaces and which hatch to release
free-swimming larvae. Early development of southern puffers is likely
IV. PHYSICAL TOLERANCES
The distribution of southern puffers is restricted to the subtropics and
tropics, suggesting a relatively narrow thermal tolerance for the species.
Hoese (1960) indicates Sphoeroides nephelus is broadly euryhaline.
The author collected individuals from Mesquite Bay at salinities ranging
from 5.5 ppt to 45.3 ppt.
V. COMMUNITY ECOLOGY
The diet of southern puffers consists primarily of crabs and molluscs which
they crush and eat with their powerful fused teeth (Shipp and Yerger 1969).
Some finfish are consumed as prey as well (Ship 1978, Froese and Pauly
The ability of puffers to take in water to inflate their body size is an
important adaptation to minimize the risk of predation (Shipp 1978),
although some predation certainly occurs.
Sphoeroides nephelus is a primarily benthic inhabitant of bays,
estuaries, and protected waters to a depth of 11 m, and is frequently
encountered in and around seagrass beds (Sedberry and Carter 1993, Froese
and Pauly 2008). The species may also occur in salt marshes (Nordlie 2003)
and in protected reef environments. Sedberry and Carter (1993) note the
presence in the rubble zone of a Belize a barrier reef lagoon they
Southern puffers are primarily active by day, settling into sand bottoms to
rest at night (author's personal observation).
VI. SPECIAL STATUS
Between 2002 and 2004, 28 cases of puffer fish poisoning were linked to
fish caught in the Indian River Lagoon. The suspected disease agent is the
dinoflagellate Pyrodinium bahamense, a species that produces
saxitoxins and is responsible for fatal cases of paralytic shellfish
poisoning in the Pacific. Landsberg et al. (2006) reveal that the skin
mucus of IRL southern puffers remained highly toxic even after a year in
captivity and suggest that P. bahamense is an emerging human health
threat in the Atlantic.
Abbot et al. (2008) monitored saxitoxin levels in three species of puffer
all throughout Florida. These authors routinely found the highest toxin
concentrations in southern puffer from the northern IRL. Bandtail puffer
(S. spengleri) from the IRL also typically exhibited skin saxitoxin
concentrations above reported toxicity thresholds, while checkered puffers
(S. testudineus) from the IRL and elsewhere were largely non-toxic.
Abbott JP, Flewelling LJ, and JH Landsberg. 2008.Saxitoxin monitoring in
three species of Florida puffer fish. Harmful Algae (in press at the time
this species report was written).
Froese R and D Pauly (Eds). 2008. FishBase. World Wide Web electronic
publication. Available online.
Hinchcliff G. 2004. Field Guide For the Rookery Bay National Estuarine
Research Reserve. Available online.
Hoese HD. 1960. Biotic changes in a bay associated with the end of a
drought. Limnology and Oceanography 5:326-336.
Hoese HD and RH Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. Texas,
Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M University Press, College Station
TX. 327 p.
Landsberg JH, Hall S, Johannessen JN, White KD, Conrad SM Abbott JP,
Flewelling LJ, Richardson RW, Dickey RW, Jester ELE, Etheridge SM, Deeds
JR, Van Dolah FM Leighfield TA, Zou Y, Beaudry CG, Benner RA, Rogers PL,
Scott PS, Kawabata K, Wolny JL, and KA Steidinger. 2006. Saxitoxin puffer
fish poisoning in the United States, with the first report of Pyrodinium
bahamense as the putative toxin source. Environmental Health
Perspectives, Vol. 114:1502-1507.
Nordlie FG. 2003. Fish communities of estuarine salt marshes of eastern
North America, and comparisons with temperate estuaries of other
continents. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 13:281-325.
Robins CR, Ray GC, and J Douglas. 1986. A Field Guide to Atlantic Coast
Fishes. The Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. 354
Sedberry GR and J Carter. 1993. The Fish Community of a Shallow Tropical
Lagoon in Belize, Central America. Estuaries 16:198-215.
Shipp RL.1978. Tetraodontidae. In: Fischer W (ed.). FAO species
identification sheets for fishery purposes. West Atlantic (Fishing Area
31). volume 5. FAO, Rome.
Shipp RL and RW Yerger. 1969. Status, characters, and distribution of the
northern and southern puffers of the genus Sphoeroides Copeia
J. Masterson, Smithsonian Marine Station
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Page last updated: October 1, 2008