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Pufferfish: ‘Crop Circles’ under the Sea

ESF Top 10 New Species of 2015

  • A male (right) biting on the left cheek of a female (left) while they were spawning
    Photograph: Yoji Okata

  • A spawning nest (mystery circle) of Torquigener albomaculosus found at 26m depth on a sandy bottom along the south coast of Amami-Oshima Island in the Ryukyu Islands
    Photograph: Yoji Okata

  • Torquigener albomaculosus placing a piece of shell on a ridge of a spawning nest
    Photograph: Yoji Okata

  • A male digging a trough by vibrating anal fin and posterior half of body
    Photograph: Yoji Okata

  • Torquigener albomaculosus placing a piece of shell on a ridge of a spawning nest
    Photograph: Yoji Okata

Pufferfish: ‘Crop Circles’ under the Sea

ESF Top 10 New Species of 2015

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About the Pufferfish

Name: Torquigener albomaculosus

How it made the Top 10: Scientists recently solved a 20-year-old mystery under the sea and discovered a new fish. Intricate circles with geometric designs about six feet (2 meters) in diameter, found on the seafloor off the coast of Amami-Ōshima Island, were as weird and unexplained as crop circles. They turn out to be the work of a new species of pufferfish, Torquigener albomaculosus. Males construct these circles as spawning nests by swimming and wriggling in the seafloor sand. The nests, used only once, are made to attract females. The nests have double edges and radiating troughs in a spoke-like geometry. The design isn’t just for show. Scientists discovered the ridges and grooves of the circle serve to minimize ocean current at the center of the nest. This protects the eggs from the turbulent waters and possibly predators too. Yoji Okata, an underwater photographer, first observed the artistic behavior. Subsequently, a team of ichthyologists and a television crew carried out an expedition to record the phenomenon.

Kingdom: Animalia

Family: Tetraodontidae

Etymology: The specific epithet is in reference to the white spots on the fish.

Size: male, 87.8 mm (tip of snout to beginning of tail); 109 mm (includes tail fin)

Type locality: Amami-Ōshima Island , Ryukyu Islands

Holotype: Japan, Ryukyu Islands, south coast of Amami-Ōshima Island, Katetsu Cove

More information: Behavior was described and documented in videos:

  • Hiroshi Kawase, Yoji Okata and Kimiaki Ito.  2013.  Role of huge geometric circular structures in the reproduction of a marine pufferfish.  Scientific Reports 3, article 2106.  Doi: 10.1038/srep02106
  • Description of species: Matsuura, Keiichi. 2015. A new pufferfish of the genus Torquigener that builds “mystery circles” on sandy bottoms in the Ryukyu Islands, Japan (Actinopterygii: Tetraodontiformes: Tetraodontidae).  Ichthyological Research 62: 207-212 (published online: 6 September 2014)

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