Pea Puffer: A Petite Powerhouse

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For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Pea Puffer or Carinotetraodon travancoricus as it’s scientifically named, it’s a tiny yet extraordinary fish that I’ve had the privilege to keep and study in my freshwater aquarium journey.

One of the smallest species of pufferfish, the Pea Puffer barely reaches 1 inch in length when fully grown.

But don’t let their small size fool you – these fish are filled with personality.

Whether you’re a seasoned fish keeper or a budding aquarist looking to take on a slightly more challenging species, the Pea Puffer offers a unique opportunity to explore and enjoy the diversity of life that freshwater aquariums have to offer.

Let’s delve further into the captivating world of the Pea Puffer and explore what it takes to successfully care for these unique fish.

Origin and Habitat

The Pea Puffer, or Dwarf Puffer originates from a very specific region in South Asia, namely the southwestern parts of India.

The states of Kerala and Karnataka in particular are known to be their primary habitats.

These areas are rich in slow-moving water bodies, including rivers, streams and paddy fields.

Such environments provide the ideal conditions for these petite puffers.

These regions experience a tropical monsoon climate marked by heavy rainfall during monsoon season and high humidity throughout the year.

The rivers and streams where Pea Puffers are found are typically slow-moving with a soft substrate, often composed of silt or detritus.

The water is generally clear but can be stained with tannins due to the decaying plant matter lending it a slightly tea-colored tint.

One of the key characteristics of these habitats is the abundance of aquatic vegetation.

Thickly planted areas with ample hiding spots are a distinctive feature of their natural environment.

Plants like Java Fern, Anubias, and Vallisneria are common in these areas and offer excellent cover and a feeding ground for these little fish.

These water bodies are rich in biodiversity, teeming with a wide variety of small invertebrates which are the primary diet for the Pea Puffers in the wild.

It is common to find them hunting for small crustaceans, worms, and insects in the dense vegetation.

Appearance and Size

The Pea Puffer, aptly named due to its small size and puffed-up body shape, is one of the smallest pufferfish species in the world.

These aquatic jewels usually reach a maximum size of 1 inch (2.5 cm) in length making them suitable for smaller aquarium setups.

Despite their diminutive size, Pea Puffers are teeming with personality and unique physical traits.

Their round, compact bodies are a defining characteristic lending them their “puffed” appearance.

Their eyes are large and expressive and are capable of moving independently.

This trait makes them particularly endearing to their caretakers.

The coloration of the Pea Puffer ranges from a light yellow-brown to a darker green-brown.

Their bodies are adorned with dark spots or patches, contributing to their charming and somewhat whimsical appearance.

This patterning also serves as an effective form of camouflage in their natural habitat.

Pea Puffer Care

One of the most fascinating physical traits of the Pea Puffer, like all pufferfish, is their beak-like mouth.

This ‘beak’ is actually a fused pair of teeth perfectly designed for cracking open the shells of small crustaceans and mollusks, their favorite food.

An interesting point to note about Pea Puffers is their ability to “puff up” when threatened or scared almost doubling their size.

This is a defensive mechanism used in the wild to deter potential predators.

However, this behavior is stressful for the fish and should not be intentionally provoked in an aquarium setting.

If a puffer is frequently puffing up, it may indicate that it’s feeling threatened or stressed by its environment or tank mates.

Frequent stress can weaken their immune system making them susceptible to diseases.

Repeated inflation can also cause physical harm to the puffer.

Ingesting air, in particular can lead to potential health complications.

When a puffer ingests air, they sometimes struggle to expel it fully which could lead to buoyancy issues making it difficult for them to swim or dive.

Male and female Pea Puffers are relatively similar in appearance, although mature females tend to be slightly larger and rounder and their underbelly is less colorful than males.

Males often have a dark line running along their belly and are generally more brightly colored.

Despite their small stature, Pea Puffers are far from inconspicuous.

Temperament and Behavior

Now, if their size and appearance didn’t already intrigue you, their behavior will.

They’re highly intelligent and exhibit a level of curiosity not often seen in freshwater fish.

You may find them exploring every nook and cranny of your tank and watching the world outside their glass walls.

Sometimes they even recognize their owner which is a trait that endears them to many aquarists.

However, with this charming curiosity comes a feisty attitude.

Pea Puffers are territorial and can exhibit aggressive behavior, especially if they feel their space is being invaded.

Each individual will claim a section of the tank as its territory and defend it against intruders.

The territorial nature is typically more pronounced in males who tend to have more squabbles among themselves than the females do.

The aggression is usually displayed through chasing and nipping at other fish.

They have sharp beaks, which they use in the wild to crack open the shells of snails, one of their favorite foods.

In the tank, they may use these beaks to nip at the fins of other fish, which can lead to stress and injuries.

In a well-set environment, they display a variety of behaviors throughout the day.

They might be seen darting through the water one moment and the next they would be foraging slowly through the plants and substrate.

Hunting is a big part of their natural behavior and they enjoy chasing after live food.

Tank Size and Water Parameters

Tank Size

Even though Pea Puffers are small they need a decent amount of space.

As highly active and territorial fish they need room to swim, explore and establish personal territories.

A 5 gallon tank can work for a single puffer but if you plan to keep a group, a 20 to 30 gallon tank would be better to prevent territorial disputes.

Remember, it’s always better to provide more space than less when it comes to keeping fish especially for a species as active and territorial as the Pea Puffer.

Tank Setup

Pea Puffers come from environments rich in vegetation, so a densely planted tank is preferable.

Live plants not only offer hiding places but also contribute to the overall health of the aquarium by absorbing nitrates.

Plants like Java Fern, Anubias, and Java Moss work well as they can tolerate a range of conditions.

In addition to plants, providing plenty of hiding spots using driftwood, rocks and aquarium decorations is advisable.

These hiding places can help reduce stress and territorial disputes among Pea Puffers.

Substrate in the tank should ideally be soft like fine sand or smooth gravel to mimic their natural habitat.

Pea Puffers are curious and like to forage on the substrate so ensuring it’s smooth will prevent them from scratching or injuring themselves.

Water Parameters

Maintaining appropriate water parameters is crucial for the health and wellbeing of your Pea Puffers.

They prefer slightly acidic to neutral water with a pH of 7.0-7.8.

They’re tropical fish and do best in warm water so aim for a temperature between 24-28°C (75-82°F).

The water hardness should be in the range of 5-15 dGH.

As for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels, they should be as low as possible with the first two ideally at zero.

Regular water changes and good filtration can help maintain these parameters.

Lighting can be moderate and they don’t require a strong water current.

Slow to medium water flow, similar to their natural habitat in slow moving rivers and paddy fields, is ideal.

What Do Pea Puffers Eat?

In their natural habitat, Pea Puffers primarily feed on small invertebrates such as crustaceans, insects and mollusks.

Their beak-like mouth is perfectly designed to crack open snail shells, a favored delicacy.

The high protein diet they consume in the wild should be emulated in an aquarium setting as well.

Pea Puffers are carnivores and should be fed a diet rich in meaty foods. Their main diet can include:

  1. Snails: Snails form a significant part of their diet and Pea Puffers are often introduced into aquariums as a natural pest control for snail populations. Snails not only provide them with essential nutrients but also help keep their beaks trimmed. If you don’t have a pest snail problem, you can breed small snails like Ramshorn or bladder snails as a food source.
  2. Live or Frozen Foods: Pea Puffers enjoy a variety of live or frozen foods including bloodworms, brine shrimp and daphnia. Feeding them live food can stimulate their natural hunting behaviors and provide them with enrichment.
  3. Freeze-Dried Foods: While not their first choice, some Pea Puffers can be acclimated to eat freeze-dried foods. These should be rehydrated before feeding to prevent digestive issues.

Pea Puffers generally won’t eat dry foods like flakes or pellets.

They prefer their food to be moving which makes live or frozen foods the ideal choice.

Additionally, a diet based solely on one type of food like only bloodworms or only snails can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

It’s important to provide a varied diet to ensure they receive a range of nutrients.

If a Pea Puffer’s diet doesn’t involve enough hard-shelled prey, like snails their beak can overgrow, making it difficult for them to eat.

Ensuring your Pea Puffer consumes enough snails or similar food can prevent this issue.

Pea Puffers are small fish with small stomachs so they should be fed small amounts several times a day instead of a large quantity once a day.

Overfeeding can lead to obesity and water quality issues so monitor their food intake and adjust as necessary.

tank size for pea puffer

Species Only or Community Tank?

The suitability of tank mates for Pea Puffers depends heavily on the temperament of individual puffers and the specific setup of the aquarium.

Because of their small size but aggressive and territorial nature, selecting appropriate tank mates for Pea Puffers can be a bit of a challenge.

Species-Only Tanks

Many aquarists prefer to keep Pea Puffers in a species-only tank.

This is largely due to their unique dietary needs and their territorial and potentially aggressive behavior.

If you’re keeping multiple Pea Puffers together ensure you have a large enough tank with lots of hiding spots to minimize conflict.

A larger group (5 or more) is often better than just a pair or trio as aggression can be spread out rather than targeted at one individual.

Community Tanks

If you want to include Pea Puffers in a community tank careful consideration is required.

They can potentially live peacefully with other fish species if the right conditions are met.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  1. Fast and Robust Fish: Pea Puffers are less likely to hassle fish that are quick and can hold their own. Some species that might work well are fast-swimming Tetras, Danios or Rasboras.
  2. Similar Water Requirements: Choose fish that thrive in similar water parameters.
  3. Avoid Slow Moving or Long-Finned Fish: Species with long fins or slow-moving habits are likely to become targets for the Pea Puffer’s nippy behavior.
  4. Avoid Bottom Dwellers: Given their territorial nature, bottom-dwelling species like Corydoras or Loaches may also be targeted due to competition for bottom space.
  5. Larger Tank Size: If you’re considering a community setup, go for a larger tank that can provide ample space for each species to establish its territory.
  6. Plenty of Hiding Spots: The tank should have plenty of plants, rocks, or decorations that can provide refuge for other fish and reduce territorial disputes.

Even with these considerations, individual puffers may have unique temperaments.

Some may tolerate tank mates better than others.

Always monitor the behavior of your puffers and their potential impact on tank mates closely.

Puffer Fish Poisoning

Puffer fish, including Pea Puffers, contain a toxin called tetrodotoxin in their bodies, which is harmful if ingested.

This isn’t a concern in normal aquarium keeping but it’s something to be aware of if you’re handling a deceased puffer.

Breeding Pea Puffers

Breeding Pea Puffers in captivity can be quite challenging primarily due to their territorial nature and the difficulty in sexing them.

However, with patience and the right conditions, it can be done.

If you’re attempting to breed Pea Puffers first set up a separate breeding tank.

This should be similar to their regular tank – warm, slightly acidic to neutral water and plenty of hiding spots and vegetation.

A 10 to 20-gallon tank should suffice.

The tank needs to be heavily planted to minimize aggression during the breeding process.

Before breeding, the Pea Puffers should be in optimal health.

This usually involves feeding them a diet rich in live foods which can help trigger spawning.

Once the fish are ready to spawn, the male will display a courtship ritual which involves a lot of swimming around the female and sometimes a ‘dance’.

If the female is receptive, she will follow the male to a quiet, plant-dense area of the tank where she will lay her eggsy on the underside of leaves.

The male will then fertilize the eggs.

After spawning, it’s advisable to remove either the parents or the eggs to a separate tank to prevent the adults from eating the eggs.

The eggs typically hatch within 5 days and the fry will start swimming freely after about a week.

Pea Puffer fry are tiny and will require infusoria (a colony of microorganisms) or other microscopic foods initially.

As they grow they can be fed baby brine shrimp or microworms.

The fry grow slowly and may take several months to reach adult size.

Pea Puffer tank mates

Should You Consider Pea Puffers?

The Pea Puffer, with its endearing personality and unique appearance, makes for a fascinating addition to any freshwater aquarium.

Their small size makes them suitable for smaller tanks and their active nature and intriguing behavior provide endless entertainment.

Their carnivorous feeding habits and hunting skills also add an interesting dynamic to your aquarium life.

Though they have some specific needs in terms of diet and habitat, the joy and satisfaction of caring for these miniature puffers far outweigh the challenges.

Their potential for snail control in a tank is also a great advantage for aquarists dealing with pest snail issues.

This why I originally purchased some of these guys. They quickly sorted out my snail problem and I then rehomed them to another fish keeper.

Though Pea Puffers may not be the best choice for a novice aquarist they are an excellent pick for those looking to take a step beyond the typical community fish.

If you’re ready for the commitment they require, you’ll be rewarded with a truly unique aquatic companion.


Are pea puffers hard to keep?

They are not hard to keep but they are very particular as to which fish can share their space and male pea puffers can be very territorial.

Are pea puffers beginner friendly?

These fish are not considered as being beginner friendly. Most of them will not eat flake or pellets and they need a carnivorous diet.

How many pea puffers in a 20 gallon?

You should be able to house 6 or 7 pea puffers in a 20 gallon tank.

Do pea puffers prefer sand or gravel?

It is more important that the substrate supports plant life as plants are crucial in a pea puffer tank. You can use coarse sand or small sized gravel.

How long do pea puffers live for?

They generally live for around 4 years but most of them don’t get to this age.

Will pea puffers eat snails?

Yes, their main diet consists of snails so if you are looking for a snail assassin then this fish is the perfect choice. If you want to keep snails then don’t add any pea puffers to the tank.

Photo of author


Irma Bense is the founder of She has over 42 years of experience in keeping fish.She has kept both freshwater and saltwater fish through the years.She has extensive knowledge in breeding numerous species of fish from Show Guppies, Cory Catfish, German Blue Rams to Apistogrammas.You can learn more about Irma on the 'About' page.

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