In a Seussian world of diffendoofers, bar-ba-loots and loraxes, one might certainly expect to cross paths with a striped burrfish (aka the spiny puffer). As a member of the porcupinefish family Diodontidae, Chilomycterus schoepfi wears the same comical look and performs the same offbeat mannerisms that have won it and other marine puffers legions of fans. While almost everyone likes the idea of puffers (at least on paper), actually housing and caring for one in the home aquarium is another matter entirely. These fascinating marine oddities are only for puffer-savvy aquarists who know how to handle this fish’s special needs (e.g., lots of meaty foods, some hard-shelled), have the tank space to house a nearly foot-long eating machine and are willing to put in the extra maintenance necessary to keep these Oscar Madisons of the marine world.
Difficulty: While half the size of its porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus) cousin, which grows to 20 inches, striped burrs are still quite sizeable at 10 to 12 inches as adults; in addition, they are total slobs when they eat, produce “boocoo” waste and are not reef compatible. In other words, they aren’t for most aquarists but rather those with large fish-only or fish-only-with-live-rock setups equipped to handle them.
Hardiness: If given a good amount of aquarium space -minimum recommendations online run from 70 gallons (perhaps OK for a single-specimen display) to 180 gallons (which would include other reef fishes and lots of live rock) – and provided with at least three squares of nutritious meaty foods daily, as well as some hard-shelled fare (clams and their valves, hard-shelled shrimp, etc.) to keep its perpetually growing beaklike teeth filed down, C. schoepfireadily adapts to life in aquaria. Puffers are purported to even rush the front panel of their aquariums whenever their human food-givers approach.
Physical description: These are boxy fish with semi-transparent fins, which they rapidly beat asynchronously to propel and maneuver themselves. This swimming behavior differs from most reef fishes that use sinuous undulations of their bodies to move about. With a tawny base color and wavy chocolate-colored striping and blotches, striped burrs look like large, uneven scoops of fudge ripple. Of course, be you a large predatory fish or a hallucinatory aquarist dousing your prized burr in hot fudge, you’d quickly think otherwise with the burr’s formidable arsenal of always-erect spines (their porcupinefish cousins have movable spines that lay flat against the body when not in defensive mode) and its ability to “puff” itself up with water by the use of an organ called a “buccal pump,” making for a much bigger, spikier and unmanageable bite. From the front, the striped burrfish seems to be all head. Besides its v-shaped mouth and fused beak, these fish possess large bulbous eyes on the top of their heads. Up close, C. schoepfi’s eyes are things of beauty – golden orbs with blue-green iridescent pupils.
Range: While more common in subtropical and the tropical West Atlantic, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, C. schoepfi ranges south to Brazil and as far north as Maine during the summer months. One area they frequent is Virginia and Maryland’s Cheasepeake Bay. They prefer reef structures (coral and rocky reefs in more northern latitudes), sea grass meadows and estuarial lagoons and bays.
Compatibility: Voracious carnivores, striped burrs will make short work of ornamental invertebrates, have been reported to swallow hermits whole, will nip at slow-moving and long-finned reef fishes and gnaw on stony corals, and are a threat to tridacnids. Keep them with larger fishes that can fend for themselves. If kept well-fed with crab, shrimp, scallops, squid and krill, etc., these fish might leave some of their invertebrate tankmates alone – but this is a risky proposition indeed.
Aquarium conditions: These fish can withstand an amazing water temperature range from 54 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But they should be maintained in temperatures of 72 to 78 degrees, with a pH of 8.1 to 8.4, dKH of 8 to 12 and a specific gravity of 1.020 to 1.025. They need lots of swimming room and may gnaw on live rock to help file their teeth down (this is a good thing). Because these fish are messy at both ends, having heavy filtration, top-notch maintenance and pristine water conditions should be the SOPs of every striped burrfishkeeper.
Special consideration: While some keepers (more likely family members or roommates who don’t know any better) may be tempted to try and invoke puffing, this is stressful for these fish and can be unhealthy. In addition, they should never be transferred from store to tank or tank to tank by removing them from the water; gulping air can be fatal to these fish. It is better to dispense with nets and use a plastic or glass container dipped into the tank to scoop up the fish and water together.