Meet ‘o‘opu hue the Spotted Pufferfish

  • Terry Lilley / Contributed photo

    Meet ‘o‘opu hue the Spotted Pufferfish

When you are diving and see this slow-moving 15-inch-long fish, look but don’t touch! The puffer-fish has a very-deadly neurotoxin in its skin that is over 1,000 times more powerful than cyanide. This toxin is called tetrodotoxin and it can kill a person within 20 minutes if consumed, and you can even have a dangerous reaction from just touching the skin! The neurotoxin causes your muscles to become paralyzed where it makes it impossible to breathe, and in some cultures the puffer-fish toxin was used as a biological weapon mixed into drinking water. Most marine predators won’t even come near this fish.

The spotted puffer-fish is also known in many parts of the Pacific as a guineafowl puffer-fish, as it is black with white spots. But it can also be a light-green color with white spots. Here in Hawai‘i the young are the same color as the adults, but in the South Pacific the young may be bright yellow, then they turn black, making them all kinds of strange-looking colors along the way. The Hawaiian name means “gourd” because of its rounded shape.

This fish has a second way to protect itself if some large predator like a shark tries to grab it. Very quickly the fish can gulp down water and inflate to twice its size like a balloon, which makes it almost impossible for anything to swallow. The spotted puffer-fish also have sharp, fused teeth which it uses to bite off bits of live coral and also eat crabs and other small sea creatures that live on the sea floor. It can even find crabs hiding under the sand by blowing jets of water at the sand, exposing the hiding crab.

Who eats ‘o‘opu hue? The Japanese! There are special restaurants in Japan that serve puffer-fish for dinner. They are called Fugu Chefs and they have to be licensed and have many years of experience to serve this expensive dish that is considered a delicacy. The neurotoxin is in the skin of the fish, and if the meat is carefully removed it can be eaten raw or cooked. The meat still has a tiny amount of toxin in it, but just enough to give the person consuming it a mild high that is said to be quite enjoyable! Not sure if this is the best way to have fun on a Friday night, but in Japan it is quite popular.

You can see the spotted puffer-fish in action in the movie “The World’s Guide to Hawaiian Reef Fish” at underwater2web, and also have your kids see the puffer-fish in person in our Coral Reef Kids Camp with our nonprofit Reef Guardians Hawai‘i at reefguardianshawaii.org.

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Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei and co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawaii go to www.reefguardianshawaii.org.

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