There are 120 pufferfish species in the Tetraodontidae family. The fish live in warm, coastal waters around the world, and some even live in fresh water. They tend to have tapered, torpedo-shaped bodies with bulbous heads and large eyes.
Pufferfish are best known for their ability to “puff up” into a ball several times their normal size. Scientists think the fish developed this defense to compensate for their slow, clumsy swimming style.
A pufferfish might look like an easy meal to a predator, but if pursued, it will quickly fill its extremely elastic stomach with large amounts of water, making itself much bigger and nearly spherical in shape .
Despite the risks of ingesting tetrodotoxin, pufferfish are a delicacy in many parts of the world.
In Japan, trained and licensed chefs may prepare pufferfish, known as fugu. Young chefs spend years learning how to properly prepare fugu, making sure that it is free of the toxic liver, gonads, and skin. Even with these precautions, several people die each year after ingesting improperly prepared fugu dishes.
The pufferfish’s tetrodotoxin is so powerful that some believe it even has the power to create real-life zombies.
In the 1980s, ethnobotanist Wade Davis—now a National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence—traveled to Haiti to investigate reports of zombification. During his research, Davis discovered that the voodoo sorcerers believed to be capable of turning people into zombies used homemade powders in their rituals. Davis collected and tested samples of zombie powders and discovered they contained pufferfish tetrodotoxin.
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