Pea Puffer: Expert Care Guide & Tank Set Up For Beginners

There’s something about pea puffers (Carinotetraodon travancoricus). They’re a tiny, special little fish with a whole lot of attitude.

A fish I believe to be a tad too delicate for a novice fish keeper, I’l llay out everything you need to know in order to provide the best care for pea puffers.

Pea Puffer Care Overview

Pea puffers, also known as Dwarf Pufferfish, Pea Puffer Fish, Pygmy Pufferfish, Dwarf Pea Puffer and the Malabar Pufferfish. Here are some key care stats:

  • Scientific name: Carinotetraodon travancoricus
  • Min. Tank size: 5 gallons (19 liters)
  • Temperature: 74°-82°F (23°-28°C)
  • Care level: medium
  • Diet: carnivore
  • Behavior: shoaling fish in nature, in the aquarium males can be quite aggressive and territorial 
  • How many can be kept together: you can keep more than one, but they will need enough space to set up their own territories, the tank would need to be at least 5 gallons per fish, keep 1 male for every 3 females
  • Size: 1 inches (2.5 centimeters)

Appearance

Pea Puffer (Carinotetraodon travancoricus) swimming on bottom of planted aquarium

This species is a little hard to describe, but I’ll give it my best shot. 

They have huge eyes compared to their body size. It gives them a really cute, inquisitive expression. 

Pea puffers have a pointed snout that is tipped with a tiny beak made of hard keratin that they use to chew up snails.

Well fed adults have a rounded body that quickly tapers towards the rear of the body. Their caudal fin (tail) is sometimes folded, making it look like the fish doesn’t even have a tail. 

Most are a dusky gold color with irregular spots and splotches of dark brown.

Like other freshwater puffers, they swim mostly by using their two pectoral fins, making it look like they hover in the water like a bumblebee hovering over the garden.

Mature males have iridescent markings behind their eyes, often called “wrinkles” and most have a black stripe or spot on their bellies. They are also usually a brighter yellow than the females when they are fully mature.

Females have a rounder body shape and have a pale belly with no spots or stripes.

Pro Tip: These fish are generally sold as juveniles. Unfortunately, you will not be able to accurately sex them until they are almost fully mature.

Pea Puffer Origins In The Wild

Pea puffers originate from freshwater rivers in central India. 

They shoal together in huge groups. These shoals move up and down the riverbank, eating copepods, small snails, crustaceans, insects and larvae. 

Sadly, these little fish have been given the status of “vulnerable’’ in the wild. 

Their numbers have dwindled in recent years because of habitat loss and overfishing.

If at all possible, please purchase puffers that were tank bred. 

If you do buy a wild caught puffer, it’s recommended to thoroughly deworm them.

Pea Puffer Care & Tank Set Up

PeaPuffer (Carinotetraodon travancoricus) swimming upwards in planted aquarium

Tank Size

Pea puffers are rather small fish. So there’s no need to buy a huge tank in order to keep this species.

You can keep a single pea puffer in a 5 gallon (19 liter) tank (bigger is always better, though!). 

If you want to have multiple puffers, it’s best to provide 5 gallons per fish. So, a pair should go in a 10 gallon (39 liter), three should go in a 15 gallon (57 liter), and so on.

Water Parameters

Tank bred pea puffers are able to adapt to a wider range of water conditions.

  • Temperature: 74°-82°F (23°-28°C)
  • Ammonia/Nitrite: 0
  • Nitrate: <20 ppm
  • pH: 7.0-7.5
  • GH: 3-20 dGH
  • KH:  3-10 dKH

Filtration 

Having good filtration is essential to any aquarium.

Filters pump water around the tank and keep it from becoming stagnant. But, they actually do so much more than that.

There are beneficial bacteria that grow inside of aquarium filters that help to detoxify waste byproducts in the water.

The Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle

Fish constantly put off wastes into the water around them. These wastes accumulate in the substrate and start to rot.

As the wastes break down, they start to put off deadly ammonia (NH3) into the water. This is really bad news because it only takes one part per million of ammonia to stress and even kill many species of fish.

Luckily, the bacteria in a fish filter eat up the ammonia and turn it into nitrite (NO2 -1) and then into something called nitrate (NO3-). 

Nitrate is much less toxic and can be allowed to build up in the water column in between weekly water changes.

Without a filter, wastes will build and build in the tank until the water is completely toxic. Good filtration is critical to successful fish keeping, so plan on adding a filter to your tank.

Pro Tip: There is a process to getting the right amount of beneficial bacteria to grow in your filter. For more information on the Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle, please see this more in depth  article.

Heater

Pea puffers require temperatures of 74°-82°F (23°-28°C), much higher than normal room temperature. 

A heater is absolutely necessary for this species.

Substrate 

This species doesn’t really have any particular needs when it comes to substrate.

But, pea puffers do best in a heavily planted tank, so you might want to use some sort of plant substrate to help you grow lots of rooted plants.

Pro Tip: Research planted substrates before you add them to your tank. Many can alter water chemistry, lowering pH or even leaching ammonia. Some also have to be replaced every few years.

Lighting 

You have to strike a bit of a balance when it comes to lighting a pea puffer tank. Puffers do better with diffuse light. Bright lights suddenly snapping on can startle them and cause stress.

But, you want good, strong lighting in order to grow live plants in the tank.

I think the best way to do both is to add some floating plants that break up the light, creating a more dappled effect.

Also, if you have the kind of lights that can be programmed to come on slowly, instead of all at once, a dawn cycle or “ramp up” period can save the fish some stress.

If you don’t have a programmable light, you can try turning on a bright light in the room a few minutes before turning on the tank light. 

Plants and Decor 

Live plants are the most important thing to a pea puffer aquarium. These fish prefer a heavily planted tank. They will feel happier and more secure living in a tiny jungle.

This is especially true if you plan on keeping more than one puffer. Densely planted tanks will give everyone areas where they can retreat and avoid aggressive neighbors.

It’s best to have lots of plants rooted in the substrate that grow to the top of the tank. Your pea puffers will happily hover around the stems, looking for food.

It’s also a good idea to add floating plants that will shade the tank and reduce the harsh glare from bright lights.

Diet

When it comes to food, pea puffers can be very picky eaters.

These fish are strictly carnivorous and usually will only accept live or frozen foods.

Live and frozen foods include:

  • California black worms
  • Bloodworms
  • Daphnia
  • Adult brine shrimp
  • Mysis shrimp
  • Small snails

Pro Tip: Fish keepers have strongly noted that this species will not accept dry foods like pellets or flakes. Be prepared to provide live or frozen foods exclusively.

Breeding Pea Puffers

Doesn’t take too much to breed pea puffers. Here’s what you need to know.

Sexing Pea Puffers

Males have a sleeker body shape than females. Once they are mature, most will have a dark stripe that runs from their chin to their anus.

Males also have tiny iridescent blue markings behind their eyes that look like tiny cracks or wrinkles. Males also tend to be a brighter yellow color.

Females will have a pale or even white belly that has no stripes or spots. They also have a rounder body shape and no blue markings behind their eyes.

The big problem with sexing pea puffers is that they do not show these distinctive characteristics until they are almost fully mature. 

Pea puffers are generally sold as juveniles but they all pretty much look like females at that point. 

You may have to buy a group of puffers, let them mature and then shuffle around fish until you have the correct proportions of 1 male to every 2-3 females.

Breeding Tank

You will need to set up a dedicated breeding tank for these fish because the adults will need to be separated from the fry.

It’s best to mimic the conditions of the main tank in your breeding tank so that fish can be transferred without much fuss.

It’s been noted that pea puffers don’t need much inducement in order to spawn. As long as you have males and females together, and they’re happy and healthy, they will most likely spawn on their own.

The adults will lay eggs in quiet areas of the tank. They will often lay the eggs on rocks, decor or plants toward the back of the tank.

Once the eggs are laid, move the adults to another tank. The eggs will hatch in 24-48 hours and the fry will become free swimming within a week of being laid. 

It’s best to feed the babies a commercially prepared liquid fry food until they are large enough to eat baby brine shrimp.

Pea Puffer Tank Mates

pea pufffer fish

Finding tank mates for pea puffers can be quite difficult. 

These fish look little and cute, but are quite notorious for biting their tank mates. They may not be able to swallow a tank mate whole, but their little beaks are very sharp and capable of taking a chunk out of much larger fish.

It’s also easy for larger fish to swallow the tiny puffer fish whole.

Honestly, it’s best to keep these little maniacs in a species only tank. The one exception that I have heard about is Otocinclus catfish. It’s been reported that the puffers will simply ignore the oto cats. 

If your tank is large enough, and very heavily planted, you can keep several pea puffers together. They will need around 5 gallons per fish so they can set up their own little territories.

You would need a 10 gallon (39 liter) for a pair, a 15 gallon (57 liter) for three puffers, and so on.

This species will devour snails and likely smaller shrimp, like cherries or crystal shrimp. They don’t have to be able to swallow something whole, they can just take little bites out of a snail or shrimp until it dies.

Is a Pea Puffer Right for You?

There’s no denying it, there’s just something special about these tiny fish. Despite their small size, they’ve got huge personalities and a lot of attitude.

Pea puffers don’t require a huge tank so you don’t have to break into your 401(k) to get going with them.

I would strongly recommend creating a species only tank for these guys. You can try to pair them with otocinclus catfish, but be prepared to move the otos if the puffers start to get nippy.

But, give up any dreams of having puffer fish in your community tank. These guys do not play well with others.

I think this species is a great fish for someone who already has some experience keeping fish. I think pea puffers may be a little too delicate for novice fishkeepers.

But, I also think that these little guys can really bring a lot of joy to a seasoned aquarist, and if you’re willing to dedicate a tank to them, I think keeping them will be a great experience overall.

I hope you find this information helpful. 

I wish you and your fish the very best!

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Katherine Morgan
Hey, there! I'm Katherine from Northwest Florida. A nunchuck specialist, I've kept aquariums for over two decades, enjoy experimenting with low-tech planted setups and an avid South American cichlid enthusiast. If You'd like to see more of my tanks, check out my Instagram

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