The Pea Puffer, also known as Pea Dwarf Pufferfish, Malabar Pufferfish, Pea Pufferfish, or Pygmy Pufferfish, is a cute and hardy fish known to be the no. 1 snail exterminator.
So, why do only a few aquarists keep them? The main reason is the care difficulty of this standoffish fish, which is further exaggerated by their sensitivity to poor water conditions.
In this article, I’ll share with you what I know about these fascinating creatures, so you can decide whether or not they are the right fit for you.
Dwarf Puffer Stats
|Temperament||Nippy, semi-aggressive, territorial (males)|
|Compatibility||Small, fast-swimming fish
(best kept in a species-exclusive tank)
|Average Size||1 inch (2.5 cm)|
|Color & Patterns||Green and yellow gradient
Black stripe (males only)
|Tank Size||5 gallons per fish|
|Tank Setup||Gentle current
|pH||6.8 – 8.3|
|Temperature||74° to 82° F (23° – 28° C)|
Distribution and Original Habitat
The Pygmy Puffer Fish can be found in Southwest India. These fish thrive in freshwater environments that lead to Lake Vembanad and Chalakudy River. Unfortunately, this species is facing a population decline, making them even more difficult to find in their natural habitat.
According to studies, wild populations fell by 40% within a span of just five years. Thus, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the freshwater Dwarf Puffer Fish vulnerable to extinction. Overfishing for the aquarium trade is cited as a reason, but aggressive agriculture, damming of rivers, deforestation, and ever-increasing water pollution also play a part.
Therefore, I strongly urge all hobbyists to source their Dwarf Puffers from a reputable dealer. Ask for the origins of the fish before buying and help reduce the negative impact of the hobby by buying captive-bred fish. Commercially-farmed Pea Puffers will only cost anywhere between $3 to $5.
There are many reasons I find endearing about the Dwarf Puffer, and one of them is their cartoonish appearance that gives rise to their name.
The Dwarf have googly eyes and open rectangular mouths. Their stocky bodies expand in the middle but they start off slightly pointed at the mouth and thin down from the dorsal fin.
What I find so hilarious about this species is that they look like oversized peas swimming across the water. Aside from their funny shape, they have tiny, translucent caudal fins. The fins are difficult to see from a distance, so they appear like peas submerged in water.
Now, how big do Pea Puffer Fish get? As hinted by the name, the Dwarf Pea Puffer is one of the smallest fish species in the aquarium hobby. These buggers are going to max out somewhere around 1 inch (2.5 cm) when fully grown.
Colors and Patterns
Males and females slightly differ in color and pattern. While both sexes have a yellow and green color gradient, males tend to look more vivid than females. In addition to having black spots, males also have a thick dark stripe running from their pectoral fins to their caudal fin. And if you look closely enough, you’ll notice that males have wrinkles around their eyes.
Females, on the other hand, have random black spots across their bodies but lack the stripe males have. While females are more lacking in color saturation, they make up for their size. They also look more rounder.
Taking care of Dwarf Puffers is a commitment. This species can hit 4 or 5 years of age if you follow the care recommendations provided in this guide.
Do Dwarf Puffers Have Poison?
Yes, they do but the poison is stored in their organs. Are Dwarf Puffers poisonous to touch? No, they are not. You have to ingest the fish for it to poison you.
The poison in question is Tetrodotoxin (TTX), a neurotoxin that causes an increasing paralysis of the muscles and shuts off vital organs, such as the heart. Due to this, a lot of novice hobbyists are on the fence about getting Dwarf Puffers as pets.
What people don’t know is that the potency of the toxin varies in species and locality. Marine puffers have dangerous levels of TTX mostly due to their diet, which includes certain algae on shellfish. Females are believed to be more toxic than males, as their ovaries can hold more poison.
Captive-raised Dwarf Puffers, on the other hand, don’t have access to toxic food sources. In the confines of a tank, they are not exposed to certain algae and bacteria. But even if you have a wild-caught Malabar Dwarf Puffer, it will not harm you unless you’ll have them for dinner. Likewise, the poison will not leak into the water if the fish dies.
To stay safe, you’ll need to dispose of the carcass right away, preferably in a bin your dog or cat can’t open.
Behavior and Temperament
There is a lot of conflicting information about the Dwarf Pea Puffer starting with its behavior and temperament. So, let’s tackle this topic in this section.
Dwarf Puffers are Full of Beans
One of the things I love about Dwarf Puffers is the entertainment value they give to your tank. Full of life and constantly on the move, these fish deliver hours of amusement to their spectators! You’ll see them investigate plants, check out caves, and examine every nook and cranny of the aquarium.
Are Dwarf Puffers Aggressive?
Unfortunately, yes. The playfulness of the Dwarf Puffer belies an unfriendly, villainous character. These fish are infamous for biting off chunks of the fins of slow-moving fish. However, there is an explanation as to why they do this.
In the wild, pufferfish would scour rocky areas looking for potential prey and take experimental bites on all sorts of vegetation. Nipping is their way of finding what other food to add to their menu. On the downside, this behavior can lead to the demise of their tankmates.
Males, in particular, are way too mean. Albeit small, male puffers would sneakily nip the fins of passersby. That said, tank mates are going to be a really important consideration when it comes to Dwarf Puffers, which we will talk about later on.
Are Female Dwarf Puffers Less Aggressive?
Yes, they are. Female Dwarf Puffers don’t make skirmishes among themselves, but that doesn’t mean they will play nice enough to be considered as a community fish. They may act indifferent towards mid-sized fish, like gouramis and angelfish.
The problem with this species is that they can turn into little psychotic killers overnight. It only takes one bite to cause your fish stress, and unfortunately, stress kills fish pretty quickly.
Dwarf Puffers are Inquisitive
Dwarf Puffers are smart critters. They pay close attention to their surroundings in and outside of the tank. Additionally, these fish often recognize their owners and they can tell if it’s chow time just by looking at you pick their food. Provided that they are trained, you can hand feed them to boot! So, don’t be surprised if you find these little guys gawking at you from time to time.
Pygmy Pufferfish are so small that many people can hardly believe they pose a threat to other fish. However, these pufferfish are dedicated fin-nippers and will attack any fish regardless of the size. These mini pufferfish will also squabble among themselves.
How Many Dwarf Puffers Should be Kept Together?
If you want to keep multiple Dwarf Puffers, you’ll want the females to outnumber the males. Generally speaking, it isn’t a good idea to keep more than one male Pea Puffer, especially in a 20-gallon tank or smaller.
The male might still chase the females around, but that’s all about it. There won’t be much aggression. Better yet, don’t have a male at all.
Can Dwarf Puffer Fish Live with Other Fish?
This is a common question that’s so difficult to answer. I recommend keeping them with their own kind. It might not be worth the hassle of finding tankmates for these guys since the odds of friendship is very unlikely.
Meanwhile, I’ve known a few experienced aquarists who were able to keep Dwarf Puffers with other species.
According to them, you’ll want fish that are:
- bigger than Dwarf Puffers, but will not eat them
- fast enough to stay away from a grumpy male Dwarf Puffer Fish
That said, Celestial Pearl Danios, Zebra Danios, Filament Barbs, Harlequin Rasboras, Lambchop Rasboras, and some tetras would easily fit this criteria. The Bristlenose catfish and Otocinclus catfish, among other small suckermouth catfish, will also work just fine.
However, you’ll want to stay away from:
- slow-moving fish
- any fish with long fins
Livebearers and algae eaters are sushi-on-the-go for the Dwarf Pea Puffer.
Dwarf Puffer Care Guide
In the wild, the Dwarf Pea Pufferfish feed on insect larvae, itty bitty crustaceans, and some algae if they have no choice. In captivity, you’ll want to provide them a variety of live or frozen protein-rich food. These fish will gorge on bloodworms, Tubifex, and brine shrimp.
Flakes and pellets are not accepted. These carnivorous fish will rather starve and watch those food go into a slump. The uneaten food will only accumulate and fester in the bottom of the tank, thereby compromising the water quality.
As discussed earlier, these fish are quite intelligent and will use visual cues to determine whether or not it’s chow time. So, they get a little excited when you approach their tank with a bag at hand. However, you don’t want these little buggers to fool you into overfeeding them. You only need to feed them once in the morning and another at night.
The freshwater Dwarf Pufferfish will, of course, thrive in freshwater, so there is no need to add marine salt. What you’ll want to do is to ensure there are no traces of ammonia before you introduce your pufferfish to their new home.
Surprisingly, these pufferfish can tolerate slightly acidic or alkaline water, with records of the fish being collected in waterways with pH levels between 6.8 and 8.3. You’ll want to aim for the middle to be safe. Hardness is likewise diverse, ranging anywhere between 5 and 15 KH.
As for the temperature, these pufferfish will thrive in stable, tropical temperatures ranging from 74° to 82° F. Consider getting an aquarium heater to prevent temperature fluctuations, especially when you live in cold climates.
Lastly, the water flow should be calm.
These mini pufferfish are intolerant of high nitrate concentrations and low oxygen levels. Fifty percent water changes every week is also vital.
There is no species-specific disease that targets the Pygmy Pea Puffer. But as with any tropical fish, this species may get Ich if the water parameters are off.
The best way to reduce the change of Ich is to provide your fish the appropriate diet and maintain the water quality without fail.
Keeping Dwarf Puffers too close to each other is a recipe for disaster! You’ll need to give these pufferfish sufficient space. As a rule of thumb, you’ll need 5 gallons for every Pea Puffer in a species-exclusive tank.
Plants and Decorations
Adding aquatic plants should be a top priority on your to-do list. An abundance of aquatic plants will make your Pygmy Pufferfish feel at home right off the bat. Plants, such as Coontails, Java moss, Java fern, Moneywort, Pygmy Chain Sword, as well as floating ones with dangling roots are fantastic additions.
Live aquarium plants break lines of sight and thereby keeps your fish feel more comfortable with their environment. Equally important, they help reduce toxic waste compounds and produce oxygen.
Moreover, you’ll need to provide your Dwarf Puffers hideouts, so they can establish their little territories more easily. Since these fish are smart, they aren’t easily amused and get bored fast. Thus, you’ll want to add plenty of things for them to explore. It helps to change their decorations after a few months to create the illusion that they are somewhere new.
Dwarf Puffers will do well on any substrate. The deciding factor is the plants you are going to place in the tank. Gravel or coarse sand are my recommendations if you are opting for rooted plants.
These mini pufferfish won’t need expensive equipment, but a sponge filter is crucial to provide mechanical filtration and gentle currents that these fish will appreciate.
To avoid complications, I recommend that you separate a pair before you begin your little breeding project. A 5-gallon tank would suffice. However, a breeding tank is not mandatory for this species if you keep only one male. Dwarf Puffers will breed naturally in your main aquarium, provided that the water temperature is maintained at 79° F.
Like a foolhardy lover, the male begins the courting process by chasing females around. When a female is willing, she will lead the male to her preferred spot among the plants to lay her eggs. The male will fertilize the eggs and from this point, all you need to do is to wait for the eggs to hatch.
Once the fry have hatched and consumed their yolk, you’ll need to start feeding them with baby brine shrimp. The Dwarf Pufferfish growth rate is fairly rapid. Fry can reach 0.4 inches (1 cm) within two months.
The Dwarf Puffer, scientifically known as carinotetraodon travancoricus, is one of those few fish that you can develop a sort of connection with. These critters will learn to recognize you as their owner and their inquisitiveness makes them a sight to behold! Can you really afford not to have them as your new pets?
Here’s a quick overview:
- You don’t need to worry about Tetrodotoxin poisoning. Dwarf Pufferfish are now mostly bred in hatcheries in Southeast Asia, which means they aren’t exposed to potential toxins.
- A single male Malabar pufferfish should be enough for a group of females.
- Pygmy Pufferfish are hardcore fin-nippers, but a few females may live among fast-swimming fish in a spacious habitat.
- These fish will thrive in live or frozen food. Flakes and pellets will be refused.
- Pea Pufferfish are fairly easy to breed, as long as they are provided with the right conditions, plenty of live or frozen food, and suitable spawning sites.
In essence, this oddball species might not be the best fish for a beginner. But if you are no longer green in fishkeeping, I’m pretty sure you’ll love them to bits!