Northern pufferfish

Northern pufferfish (Chesapeake Bay Program)

Puffers. Balloonfish. Blowfish. Blow toads. Bubblefish. Globefish. Swellfish. Sugar toads. Spiny boxfish.

No matter what you call them, the northern puffer and striped burrfish are two of the Chesapeake Bay’s most intriguing fish. This month’s puzzle challenges you to tell them apart.

But first, we focus on how they are alike.

Striped burrfish

The striped burrfish is found from the mouth of the Chesapeake up to the Patuxent River. ( / CC BY 2.0)

I’ll huff & I’ll puff and blow myself up: Pufferfish, burrfish and some other animals have an organ — the buccal pump — which allows it to breathe through its cheeks. When threatened or stressed in water, the fish’s stomach can inflate up to 100 times its size, pushing the internal organs out of the way. If the fish is taken out of the water, the stomach fills with air.

Here’s the skinny: Instead of scales, these fish have rough to spiky skin. This skin is made of fibrous wavy folds that inflate much more easily than scales would. Once fully puffed up, this skin forms a tight, hard, spiky barrier that makes it difficult for a predator to sink its teeth into.

Look, don’t touch! If you want to watch a northern pufferfish or striped burrfish inflate, enter “pufferfish” in your computer’s search engine to find a video. Puffing up puts a lot of stress on the fish and can occasionally kill it. Also, the fish is unable to swim properly while inflated, making it vulnerable while it takes the time needed to deflate.

Northern pufferfish

A northern pufferfish fills itself with air when it is taken out of the water. This is very stressful for the fish’s inner organs and can result in the death of the fish. ( / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Surf in their turf: Both fish eat the invertebrates and shellfish found in their habitat. That includes oysters, barnacles, mussels, clams and a variety of crabs. The pufferfish is known to also eat finfish, and large schools of puffers have been observed dining on soft-shell blue crabs.

Beware the beak! Breaking open all of that seafood can be rough on teeth. It’s a good thing the teeth continue to grow throughout these fishes’ lifetime. Remember, teeth strong enough to break open shellfish can deliver a nasty bite to fingers. Consider yourself warned.

Northern pufferfish

The northern pufferfish is most common in the Lower Chesapeake but has been found as far north as Kent Island, MD. ( / CC BY 2.0)

Just a pinch of salt: Both fish are found in brackish waters with about 10–5 parts per thousand salinity.

Inflatable Pop Quiz

Any plan by a creature aiming to prey on the northern puffer or striped burrfish would blow up in its face — literally, with spikes thrown in!

The Chesapeake’s two self-inflating fish species are often lumped together, but they aren’t even in the same animal family.

Can you match each fish to its facts? Answers are below.

  1. My spines are always erect.
  2. My short prickles lay flat until I inflate.
  3. Authorities recommend that you don’t eat me. I release a toxin when I am stressed.
  4. I am so delicious that one of my nicknames is “honey toad,” although I am sold under the more palatable name,“sea squab.”
  5. I am club-shaped.
  6. I am box-shaped.
  7. I can grow up to 14 inches long, although most of my kind are closer to 8 inches.
  8. I can expand to three times my size.
  9. I grow up to 10 inches long.
  10. I move by jet propulsion. I squirt jets of water out of my gill slits, which propels me forward.
  11. I push myself forward by rapidly swishing my rear fins back and forth like paddles.
  12. I belong to the Tetraodontidae (4 teeth) family. I have 2 fused teeth on the top of my mouth and two fused teeth on the bottom.
  13. I belong to the Diodontidae family. I have 2 large fused teeth: one on top, one on the bottom.
  14. I live near sandy, silty or muddy bottoms of the Bay’s flats and channel edges. I live nearshore during the summer and move offshore in the winter.
  15. I am found in or near Bay grass beds. In winter, I head south for warmer waters. 


Striped Burrfish: 1, 3, 6, 9, 10, 13, 15

Northern Pufferfish: 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14

Kathleen Gaskell is the Bay Journal's copy and layout editor and author of the Chesapeake Challenge. Contact Kathleen at

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