The Mbu puffer, also known as giant puffer, giant freshwater puffer, or tetraodon mbu, is a huge freshwater puffer fish. Growing up to 30 inches in length, Mbu puffers are a challenging species to keep. The approach to ownership is so different from most fish that Mbu puffers are sometimes referred to as underwater puppies.

African puffer fish are found through the Rift Lakes and their connected waterways. The Mbu is the biggest puffer fish of them all and is native to the Congo river system into Lake Tanganyika.

Like puffer fish found in fresh and saltwater worldwide, the Mbu puffer can inflate itself with water or air when alarmed or under attack to make them too large of a target for predators. For large Mbu puffers, this can take them to sizes larger than a beach ball.

Mbu Puffer Stats

Listed tank sizes are the minimum
Size: Up to 24″ (60cm+)
Tank: 50 gals when young, enormous when mature 1000+.
Strata: Bottom-middle mainly comes up to the top to take food
PH: 7.0-fairly tolerant
Hardness: Medium. dH range: 10.0 to 15.0
Temperature: Mid to upper 70’s (likes warmer best) (26°C+)

Classification:

Order: Tetraodontiformes
Suborder: Tetraodontidei
Family: Tetraodontidae
Genera: Tetraodon
Species: Mbu

Appearance

The Mbu puffer is an attractive representation of puffer fish. It has a distinctive comet-shaped body with a large head, protruding eye ridges, and an almost human-shaped mouth with four large, chiseled teeth.

Its fins are small but very powerful. Mbu puffers are very maneuverable. Combined with their powerful tail, they can dart quickly to pick crabs, clams, and fish off the bottom or in all tank levels.

Mbu puffer coloring ranges from an even green to a golden or light yellow on the belly. Their markings are the same color as their bellies and reminiscent of leopard or jaguar patterns. The Mbu puffer keeps its tails closed except when making power moves, where it will flare dramatically.

The Mbu puffer is also intelligent and expressive. This huge puffer fish has eyelids, which aid in its facial expressions. Mbu grows to know their owners and follow them when they move past the aquarium. This friendly behavior has helped earn them the “underwater puppy” moniker. Adult fish can also be as costly to feed as a large dog.

They will follow fingers, beg for food, and can even be trained to take food from the hand. A word of caution; the Mbu puffer has powerful teeth and little sense of boundaries. If they mistake a finger for a shrimp, the bite can be excruciating.

In captivity, the Mbu puffer lifespan averages 10 years, giving you plenty of time to become well acquainted with your big puffer fish.

The giant pufferfish belongs to the family of Tetraodontidae, which means that their bodies contain the same neurotoxin tetrodotoxin as found in sushi pufferfish.

Mbu Puffer Care

Due to their large size, Mbu puffers are out of the scope of most fish keepers because a huge aquarium is required to house them correctly. Unless you are an advanced keeper, the species is more appropriate for public aquariums.

Its large size and need to swim dictate ideal aquarium sizes of 500 to 1,000 gallons. This type of large, heavy installation requires high cost, time, and effort to set up and maintain and is beyond all but the most dedicated keepers.

Smaller aquariums of 100 to 400 gallons can house Mbu puffers up to 20 inches or so if the tank is in a horizontal shape to give them lots of swimming room. This is not considered ideal because if they grow any larger, it is time to move them to a huge tank.

If you plan to keep Mbu puffers for many years, it makes sense to invest in the correct size tank and filtration system upfront to avoid multiple equipment upgrades.

The native waters of the Mbu puffer are immaculate, and aquariums for this species should have robust filtration systems. Large fish produce a lot of waste, and they are messy eaters. As they are a chewing species, outside the aquarium, canister filters are a good choice.

In terms of water, the Mbu puffer likes it warm, 75.2 – 80.6°F (24 – 27 °C). They are very tolerant of water pH and hardness ranges as long as it is maintained as a constant. Filtering chlorine, if it exists, out of your replacement water and letting the other balances stay the same is a good way to acclimate your Mbu puffer to your water conditions.

They are not very tolerant of nitrogen and other substances caused by dirty water or bacteria. Many of these headaches can be avoided by changing out a third of the water weekly, if not more frequently.

For enormous aquariums, this is extremely laborious. Automatic water changers remove this burden by pumping out tank water and replacing it with water from a good clean source free of chlorine.

Scale the return of the water so that there is not an extreme current. A gentle motion is OK, but Mbu puffers are not strong swimmers and can get stressed by strong currents.

When Mbu puffers become ill, there are usually warning signs such as sudden changes in swimming patterns, sluggishness, and the appearance of dark spots on their usually bright bellies.

Much of their home range is in sandy bottom rivers, so a good coral sand substrate is ideal for Mbu puffers. They will often make depressions or nests in the sand or sift it in their mouths as they hunt for clams and snails.

The large size of the recommended aquariums allows larger rocks, pieces of driftwood, and other bottom structures to create caves, crevices, and other hiding places.

The Mbu puffer will explore the ones they can get into. Smaller spaces can make good hiding spots for smaller species of tank mates if you think your Mbu puffer is friendly enough to cohabitate with.

Rooted plants are a great way to line the sides and back to provide some visual relief and a place for small fish to hide. Plants that root well are preferable because Mbu puffer will sometimes chew on them.

Mbu Puffer Tank Mates

Mbu puffers are difficult to cohabitate for several reasons. Their aggressive and carnivore nature can make them hostile to pretty much everything that swims. Given their large size, anything you put in the tank with them has the prospect of becoming a meal.

The fish are true individuals in that each has their own personality. One Mbu puffer may do well with tank mates and others of its own kind; another may not. The only way to find out is to put two of them together and see if they get along.

If you get a Mbu puffer with a friendly personality, you can try them with non-threatening species. Watch their interaction closely, so it does not result in the death of the tank mate.

Here is a short list of fish that can do well with Mbu puffer:

  • Guppies
  • Tetras
  • Algae eaters
  • Plecos
  • Rasboras
  • Rainbow fish
  • Roseline sharks

Some keepers will add guppies and similar small fish that can easily hide but can also be easily replaced. If the Mbu puffer is kept well fed, they may leave the small fish alone. This is something that may be right for your aquarium but is learned by trial and error.

If you decide to keep other fish in your Mbu aquarium, design the tank so that there are lots of hiding places for tank mates to escape. Thick vegetation, Caves, ledges, and similar retreats are recommended.

Invertebrates and crustaceans are not recommended as tank mates because the MBU puffer will eat them. Some keepers intentionally use these in Mbu puffer aquariums as a food source. In the wild, these are a staple of the Mbu puffer diet.

Most often, aquarium keepers end up having their Mbu puffer in their own aquarium. This can lead to a bond between the keeper and the fish where it will recognize you and actually beg for food. This unique relationship is why the Mbu puffer is also known as the underwater puppy. It is curious how such an aggressive fish can be so gentle with humans.

Mbu Puffer Breeding

Mbu puffers are a poor choice for captivity breeding. There is no known way to identify the males and females of the species. There are no known instances of breeding in captivity.

Breeding has been seen in the wild. Mbu puffer males create shallow round pits in the bottom and court females to lay their eggs. It is thought the male Mbu puffer guards the nest until the eggs hatch.

Getting Mbu puffer to create this in captivity has yet to be proven successful.

Mbu Puffer Diet

The Mbu puffer will readily eat anything living or dead. This makes feeding them simple. They feed on various fish, clams and mussels, crabs, crayfish, and snails in the wild.

Any and off of these are good choices for your Mbu puffer. Feeder goldfish and guppies will be welcomed and live shrimp, crayfish, fiddler crabs, earth or bloodworms and snails. If you can find a way to sneak the crabs, shrimp, or crayfish into the tank, your Mbu puffer will hunt them and get some mental stimulation in the process.

Since Mbu puffer teeth grow so rapidly, it is a good idea to include plenty of shelled food types such as clams, mussels, and snails so they can keep their teeth in check. This should constitute a majority of their diet. Keep in mind that feeding Mbu puffers is not inexpensive. A large fish can consume as much as $10 a day in clams and mussels.

Mbu puffers are messy eaters and will litter the tank bottom with chewed bits of shell. It is good to clean these out weekly to not accumulate fish waste algae to dirty the water quality.

Summary

  • Mbu puffer fish is the largest of the African freshwater puffer species.
  • The Mbu puffer can grow to as big as 30 inches but often grows up to 24 inches in aquariums.
  • The species is an active swimmer and needs a large aquarium. A tank of 300 to 1,000 gallons is appropriate depending on the size of the Mbu puffer.
  • Mbu puffers tolerate water chemistry but need a temperature range of 75.2 – 80.6°F (24 – 27 °C).
  • They are carnivores and can be very aggressive.
  • Mbu puffers are also very intelligent and will follow their owners across the tank when they see them.
  • Mbu puffer teeth are constantly growing. They need a diet heavy in clams to help keep that growth in check.
  • Adding tank mates for Mbu puffers is largely dependent on the nature of the Mbu. Aggressive ones will hunt everything in the tank.
  • Smaller tank mates are actually better if they have places to hide.
  • Feeding your Mbu puffer regularly will help keep their attention away from tankmates.
  • Introducing live crabs or crayfish into the water will give Mbu puffers something to hunt, which they appreciate.
  •  The species needs hard, crunchy food such as clams to be a majority of their diet. This will help keep their teeth from overgrowing.
  • Mbu puffers can be trained to eat from your hand but watch your fingers.

With their expressive eyes, striking personalities, and incredible appetite, the Mbu is indeed like an endearing, underwater dog. For these reasons, people raise a Mbu puffer, despite the challenges that they have to overcome.

So, if you’re in the mood for a challenge, why not give the Mbu puffer a chance? This giant underwater puppy may just be the perfect aquarium pet for you.

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