Dragon Puffer: Keeping, Feeding & Breeding

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Pufferfish are really popular in the freshwater fishkeeping hobby at the moment. They range from the much loved Dwarf Puffer, which only reaches 1.5” (3.5cm) or so in length, to the mighty Mbu Puffer which is reported to be able to grow to 36” (100cm) long. Pufferfish are full of character and can be the next ‘step up’ for those who are looking for a new challenge.

I first started keeping pufferfish about 10 years ago. I have kept a number of puffers over the years and I still have a tank of cheeky Dwarf Puffers and a much loved Fahaka Pufferfish. In this guide, we look at the Dragon Puffer.

Dragon Puffers are not seen in local fish as often as they should be.

Dragon Puffer General Description

Dragon Puffers, (which are also sometimes called Humpback Pufferfish or the King Kong Puffer), are medium-sized pufferfish that has a brown to orange coloration with distinctive darker patches and a lighter, molted belly. They have a distinctive ‘hump’ on their back, between their head and their dorsal fin.

Pufferfish live their entire lives in freshwater and will not survive in brackish or a full saltwater environment.

Dragon Puffers are aggressive fish that are best kept as a single specimen in an aquarium.

Dragon Pufferfish Name

Dragon Puffers have long been known by the scientific name Tetraodon palembangensis. However, in 2013 a new genus of pufferfish was established. A number of pufferfish fish from Southeast Asia were moved into the Pao genus. All the pufferfish in the Pao genus (with the exception of Pao leiurus) are true freshwater pufferfish.


Common Name: Dragon Puffer, Humpback Puffer, King Kong Puffer
Scientific Name:Pao palembangensis (formally Tetraodon palembangensis)
Origin:Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Laos
Tank Distribution:Middle and lower regions
Adult Size:7.8″ (19.5cm)
Life Expectancy:10-15 years
Care Level:Intermediate to Difficult
Minimum Tank Size:30 US Gallons (110 Litres)
Breeding Method:Substrate spawner
Temperature:75°F – 82°F
pH:6.7 – 7.7

Dragon Puffer Origins

The Dragon Puffer is known to inhabit slow-moving freshwater streams, rivers, and ponds throughout much of Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, and Indonesia. As an ambush predator, the Dragon Puffer chooses to live in locations where it can find hiding spots to sit and wait for prey to come close enough to catch.

Dragon Puffer Origins Map

Dragon Puffers in the Wild

Dragon Puffers are currently listed as of least concern by The IUCN Red List. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species.

Despite pressure from loss of habitat and pollution, Dragon Puffer populations remain stable.

Dragon Puffer Habitat

The Dragon Puffers’ natural habitat is slow-moving rivers, streams, and ponds. These locations will usually have lots of large rocks, tree roots, and fallen branches which provide ample hiding places where the Dragon Puffer can sit and wait to ambush prey.

In my own experience, setting up an aquarium with lots of large pieces of root or aquarium-safe wood helps the Dragon Puffer to feel safe.

If kept in an open aquarium with few places to hide, the Dragon Puffer will never really settle and may refuse to eat.

What Size Aquarium For A Dragon Puffer?

I kept my Dragon Puffer in a 40-gallon breeder (180 liters) aquarium, but they can also be kept in a 29 gallon (110 liters) aquarium. Dragon Puffers are not active fish, so there is no need to lavish them with lots of swimming space.

How Should A Dragon Puffer Aquarium Be Set Up?

I have tried a couple of different aquarium setups for my Dragon Puffer and I found, the more hiding places you give the Dragon Puffer, the more relaxed and comfortable it feels.

Dragon Puffers are not active, free-swimming fish, so you may as well accept that, and give them what they want, which is a choice of places to sit and wait for their prey to swim by.

I added some plants (mainly Java Ferns and Anubias) to give the aquarium a ‘natural’ feel and offer even more cover to the puffer. I found the Dragon Puffer took no interest in the plants at all, although it did on occasion break leaves off when chasing down some prey.

The Dragon Puffer doesn’t seem to mind what sort of lighting the aquarium has, although I suspect they prefer less light to more. If I hadn’t had live plants with my puffer I probably would have gone for quite subdued lighting. As it was, the wood and plants provided plenty of gloomy areas my Dragon Puffer could hide in.

What Filtration For Dragon Puffers?

Filtration is important in a Dragon Puffer aquarium. Pufferfish in general require stability in their water. The issue can be, pufferfish doesn’t eat for a few days, then eats a large meal, then poops a lot, then nothing for a few days! I have had good success using an external canister filter like the ones from Fluval that I wrote about in this article.

Whatever filtration you use, it is very important there isn’t too much flow. Dragon pufferfish come from slow-moving to almost still bodies of water. They don’t want the water rushing past them at high speed. I added a tap to my canister filter to slow the flow in my Dragon Puffer aquarium right down. It seemed to work well.

Dragon Puffer Behavior In The Aquarium

As mentioned above, Dragon Pufferfish are not active swimmers. They will spend the vast majority of their time either hiding or sitting in ambush waiting for their prey to pass them by.

I found my Dragon Puffer literally didn’t move for several days, then became active when it was time to eat, then returned to his hiding place. Bearing this in mind, if you only own a single aquarium, or you are new to fish keeping, a Dragon Puffer probably isn’t the fish for you.

Unlike many other members of the pufferfish family, the Dragon Puffer doesn’t tend to burrow. As such, the choice of substrate is not a major issue. I just used normal aquarium gravel with my Dragon Puffer, and he was perfectly happy.

Dragon Puffer Tank Mates

Dragon Pufferfish are not sociable. In fact, they are downright antisocial. They will want to be kept in a single specimen aquarium. I tried keeping two together in a single aquarium, and that didn’t even work. 1 tank, 1 Dragon Puffer!

How Big Do Dragon Pufferfish Get?

Dragon Pufferfish are considered medium-size pufferfish, reaching up to 7.8″ (19.5cm). There is no discernable difference in size between males and females.

What Do Dragon Puffers Eat?

Like so many other pufferfish, the Dragon Puffer needs to eat lots of shelled food to keep its ever-growing teeth in trim. In the home aquarium, the Dragon Puffer should be fed snails as well as shellfish.

They will also eat worms, small live fish, and crustaceans. I struggled at first to wean my Dragon Puffer off of live foods, but he did eventually come round.

Below is a list of suggested foods for a Dragon Pufferfish;

  • Ramshorn Snails
  • Pond Snails
  • Clams
  • Mussels
  • Crabs
  • Cockles
  • Worms
  • Small, Live Fish

Young Dragon Puffers need to eat every other day but adult puffers only need feeding every 3 or 4 days, and once fully grown maybe only once a week to every 10 days.

A Dragon Pufferfish’s diet must include some hard-shelled food to keep the puffer’s teeth worn down. Pufferfish’s teeth grow continually throughout their lives. Failure to keep them trimmed will result in a pufferfish that will be unable to open or close its mouth.

Sexing Dragon Puffers

Dragon Puffers are not sexually dimorphic meaning you can not tell males from females just by looking at them. The only reliable way to sex Dragon Puffers is by observing a pair during spawning, and seeing which fish lays the eggs and which one fertilizes them.

Breeding Dragon Puffers In Captivity

There are some reports of keepers successfully breeding the Dragon Puffer at home and it is reported they do it by keeping several specimens in a large aquarium with plenty of hiding places.

Research has shown that eggs will be laid in a pit that has been excavated in the substrate, usually inside a cave. After spawning is over, the male takes care of the eggs and growing fry.

In captivity, it is probably best to move the fry and raise them separately

Do Dragon Pufferfish Inflate?

Like other members of the Pufferfish family, Dragon Puffers have the ability to rapidly inflate their bodies when faced with danger.

Should another fish, or even a land mammal, grab a Dragon Puffer in its mouth, the puffer’s natural reaction is to rapidly inhale a large volume of water, doubling its body size and hopefully forcing the predator’s mouth wide open.

Dragon Puffers will occasionally inflate in the aquarium. They need to exercise their inflation muscles from time to time. It tends to be a quick inflate then deflate, so blink and you will miss it!

Other Members Of The Puffer Family

Pufferfish are extremely popular in the freshwater fishkeeping hobby at the moment. There are different-sized puffers to suit different-sized tanks and different experience levels.

Pufferfish range from the relatively cheap and easy to care for Pea Puffer which only reaches around 1.5 inches, to the giant Mbu Puffer which will reach 3ft or more and is only suitable for aquarists with extremely large aquariums, possibly needing 1000 or more gallons.

Below I have listed some of the most popular puffer species available in the hobby. One note of caution, common names for pufferfish vary by country, so always be sure to find the correct scientific name of the puffer you are purchasing before completing the sale.

About the Author

I’ve been keeping, breeding, and showing tropical fish for nearly 30 years. Over that time I’ve done it all! I’ve had great success and I’ve made some really foolish mistakes (like the time I bought an Asain Walking Catfish). Read more…
Richard James

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