Meet the Fish That Builds Works of Love on the Seafloor

Who knew the unassuming male puffer fish is one of nature’s greatest artists?

August 04, 2017

Sometimes there are no better artists to convey the importance of protecting the ocean than sea creatures themselves. Equipped with nothing more than fins and dogged determination, male puffer fish in the waters off Japan create ornate geometric designs in the sand. The delicate displays could give any artist and his paintbrush (and opposable thumbs) a run for his money.

Divers first spotted the elaborate circular patterns, spanning more than six feet on the ocean floor, in 1995. But it wasn’t until 2011, that scientists figured out the origin of these “mystery circles.” Sir David Attenborough explains the remarkable process in the “Courtship” episode of BBC Earth’s Life Story, excerpted above.

(a) Early stage; (b) middle stage; (c) final stage; and (d) after spawning

Yoji Okata

The whole process takes a labor-intensive seven to nine days, and the suitor works around the clock. Though the finished product is spectacular to human eyes, scientists aren’t sure if female pufferfish are quite so appreciative of their lovers’ labors. The fine sand particles in the middle of the nest create a soft bed for a clutch of eggs, and, it's possible that, “the beautiful lines and structure could serve only to channel those particles to the center and have no aesthetic purpose,” researcher Alex Jordan told LiveScience.

Whatever their purpose, the structures are made all the more stunning by their impermanence. Rather than maintain his hard-won love palace, the male pufferfish makes a new masterpiece each time he mates.

And so castles made of sand melt into the sea, eventually.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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