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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Specimen of the Week: Week Seven

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 28 November 2011

Scary MonkeyI am pretty excited about this week’s specimen as it is our first specimen suggestion that has come from a reader (who I don’t know personally.) (That is unless it’s someone I know acting under a pseudonym?) (But that’s probably improbable.)


It is an animal of Hollywood acclaim, is famed for its crazy antics, is thought by many to be the second most venomous vertebrate in the world, and two individuals of unknown species once saved the life of our museum assistant. The specimen of the week is…




As always, I shall now proceed to blow your mind with five pieces of trivia that will inevitably illicit many oohs and aahs. Per point please.


A puffer with his little friend the porcupine fish

A puffer with his little friend the porcupine fish

1) There are currently 29 genera and 185 imaginatively named species of puffer fish, including the ‘evileye blaasop’, the ‘prickly toadfish’ and the ‘least puffer’ (poor thing).


2) To evade predators they use their keen eyesight to spot mean looking fish and then swim really, really quickly for a very short period of time, until their tiny fins tire from moving their comparatively large body through the water. When that genius system doesn’t pay off, then they earn their name and ‘puff’.


An attractive chap I think you'll agree?

An attractive chap I think you’ll agree? LDUCZ-V1448

3) By filling their hugely elasticated stomachs with water, or air, depending on where they are at the time, they greatly increase their size and take on the the shape of a football. In many species this also has the effect of making tiny spines in the skin stand on end meaning that any potential predator will get a mouth full of prickles.


The spotted puffer fish that lives at the Grant Museum

The spotted puffer fish that lives at the Grant Museum

4) If a puffer is eaten (which happens, despite its incredibly well thought out plan of defence) the aggressor is likely to choke on the expanding fish, or else, in a fit of vengeance from beyond the puffer grave, the predator may die from neurotoxins found in the puffer’s internal organs. Although sharks, being the coolest and rock-hardiest of predators, may get away with this choice of aperitif, humans that come into contact with the neurotoxins, frequently find the effects lethal.


The 'half-smooth golden puffer fish' that lives at the Grant Museum of Zoology

The ‘half-smooth golden puffer fish’ that lives at the Grant Museum of Zoology

5) Since a child I have suffered from hydrophobia. My mother blames my father for taking me through a carwash as a toddler, an experience which apparently left me shaking for hours. Eitherway, I’m terrified of water. Those of you who know I am a shark specialist may find this odd. Determined to teach the ridiculously irrational part of my brain a lesson, though primarily because I want to dive with sharks, I did my PADI in Australia. The swimming pool rehearsals were done, the kit was on and the scene was set… in the stormiest darn weather you have *ever* seen. At least it felt like it at the time. It is hard to sob with fear underwater with a dive mask collecting all your tears but I gave it my best shot. Just as I threatened to exhaust my oxygen supply five minutes into the dive from hyperventilating, I saw two puffer fish cruising along with their tiny fins vibrating with the effort of propelling themselves through the stormy Australian sea. For the 3.5 minutes that I was in their company, my breathing slowed, my tears stopped, and heaven forbid- I actually enjoyed myself, before they disappeared around a reef and the terror returned to leave me shaking like a desert rat in the Antarctic once more. Excellent progress though I think you’ll agree. Next stop- Great White Sharks.


If you would like to adopt a puffer fish for yourself or as a gift (who doesn’t want a stuffed puffer fish for Christmas?) then please get in touch at zoology.museum@ucl.ac.uk. Thanks!


One Response to “Specimen of the Week: Week Seven”

  • 1
    Aaron Mccreary wrote on 19 October 2014:

    Can saltwater puffers and fresh water fish live together

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