Boxfishes and cowfishes (Ostraciidae) are small fishes with a triangular, rigid, armored body encased by fused scales. The family comprises 33 species in 12 genera. Horned species are referred to as cowfishes and smooth species as boxfishes. Most ostraciids associate with coral reefs and sand bottoms while at least one species is entirely pelagic. Many members of this family are able to secrete a toxin (ostracitoxin) through their skin as a chemical defense mechanism. Ostraciids feed on a variety of benthic organisms including sponges, tunicates, hydroids, crustaceans and algae. Some species are considered good to eat and are often dried as curios. Boxfish and cowfishes can be very colorful and have loads of personality in an aquarium. However, those species (esp. Lactoria sp.) prone to releasing ostracitoxin are capable of wiping out an entire system. Boxfishes and cowfishes are not aquacultured.

Thornback Cowfish – Lactoria fornasini  (June 2012)

The Thornback Cowfish (Lactoria fornasini) was cultured many times throughout 2012 and 2013 for this project.

Juvenile Thornback Cowfish (Lactoria fornasini) in Indonesia.
Juvenile Thornback Cowfish (Lactoria fornasini) in Indonesia.

L. fornasini eggs are large (1.8 mm), contain multiple yellow oil globules and are covered in yellow pigment spots. They have a long incubation period (80+ hours) and were collected frequently throughout the year. L. fornasini larvae have a yellow pigmented, bulbous body and measure 2.9 mm at hatching. They start to feed on 60-80 micron copepod nauplii 4 days after hatching. L. fornasini  larvae have no pelvic fins. The hexagonal bony plates begin to form just prior to flexion, near 3.1 mm TL, and are fully formed when flexion is complete 4.5 mm TL (14-18 dph, depending on water temperature). At this time (postflexion stage) the horns start to develop and the larvae become pelagic juveniles. L. fornasini  juveniles have fully formed horns and adult pigmentation (bright blue spots) after 60-70 days. Survival to market size (2-3 cm) is very high.

Thornback Cowfish (Lactoria fornasini) larvae raised in the laboratory.
Thornback Cowfish (Lactoria fornasini) larvae raised in the laboratory.

Fifteen 1″ captive-bred L. fornasini  juveniles were kept in a 40-gallon aquarium together with juvenile groupers and snappers for several months during this study. While juvenile boxfish are less likely to release toxin than adults it is still interesting to note that despite the high stocking density, aggressive tank mates and one cowfish death no poisoning was observed in the tank. Could these cultured cowfish be non-toxic? Recent research may shed light on this.

Pufferfishes also produce a potentially lethal toxin, called tetrodotoxin. This toxin is primarily stored in the liver and ovaries and is usually not released like ostracitoxin. Pufferfish (fugu) has been a Japanese delicacy for centuries and many people have been poisoned despite strict preparation guidelines to remove the toxic tissues. In 2003, Japanese researchers discovered that symbiotic bacteria (certain species of Pseudomonas sp. and Vibrio sp.) present in the fish’s natural diet are responsible for synthesizing tetradotoxin. Non-toxic pufferfishes are now being farmed in Japan simply by restricting their diet.

The toxin released by cowfishes and boxfishes is likely also produced by symbiotic bacteria. In 2013, a research team in India isolated an ostracitoxin-producing Vibrio species in the mucous lining of the yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus). Culturing ostraciids on a restricted diet could prevent these bacteria from developing and make them safe for aquariums. More studies are needed…

Spotted boxfish – Ostracion meleagris  (May 2014)

Spotted boxfish (Ostracion meleagris) were reared in April and May of 2014 from wild collected eggs at the Reef Culture Technologies hatchery. This species is fairly common on Hawaiian reefs where it primarily feeds on tunicates, sponges and algae. Males are attractive with dark blue black-spotted sides and a brown white-spotted dorsal back. This fish has a reputation for being difficult to keep in aquariums and will release ostracitoxin when stressed.

Female adult Spotted Boxfish (Ostracion meleagris) on a reef in Hawaii.
Female adult Spotted Boxfish (Ostracion meleagris) on a reef in Hawaii.

O. meleagris eggs are slightly oval, contain a cluster of yellowish oil globules and measure about 1.5 mm in diameter. Hatching occurs after 3-4 days. The bulbous, dark pigmented larvae measure about 2.1 mm at hatching. O. meleagris larvae start feeding after about 4 days, undergo flexion between 10-15 dph and start juvenile transition by 30 dph. Live feeds during the larval phase consisted of copepods and newly hatched artemia. 40 dph O. meleagris juveniles readily feed on live artemia and frozen foods. O. meleagris larvae are easy to raise.

Spotted Boxfish (Ostracion meleagris) larvae reared in the laboratory.
Spotted Boxfish (Ostracion meleagris) larvae reared in the laboratory.

Interestingly, stressed or dead 90 dph O. meleagris boxfish juveniles do not release toxin. It appears that this species – like the cultured juvenile cowfish previously reported – does not develop the ostracitoxin-producing bacteria (Vibrio sp.) when raised from eggs in captivity. Captive breeding boxfishes and cowfishes without toxin is a big step toward making these unique fishes more suitable for aquariums.