Why does David Attenborough think this fish is “unbelievable”?

This tiny puffer fish is one of nature's greatest lovers

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With his stumpy body and beady eyes, this little puffer fish doesn’t look much like an aquatic sex god. But in fact, when it comes to courtship technique he totally rules the waves.

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Over many days, the male puffer engages in an extraordinary labour of love – a beautifully constructed boudoir in which to lure a mate. The male’s building skills are key, because any potential females will judge him on the quality of his workmanship. The picture of the site (below) shows just how intricately assembled his love nest is. And viewers will get to see it in this week’s episode of the wildlife epic Life Story.

David Attenborough admits to being blown away by the sequence when he came to narrate it. “I promise you I speak the literal truth when I say I was shocked when I saw it,” he says. “Had I not known who filmed it, I would swear it was a fake, done by computer imagery. It’s like an enormously complex flower with symmetrical petals all the way around. It is amazing. You cannot believe it’s true.”

The challenge of filming the amorous puffer was immense, not least because the Life Story team could only find one solitary male in the puffers’ mating ground, off the coast of Japan. Camera support frames were built on the sea bed to film both close up and from four metres above the puffer’s love nest. 

Specialist underwater cameraman Hugh Miller describes what happened next. “It was quite dark, but I could see the female swollen with eggs as she came into the circle. Once she was in the middle it seemed to trigger a change. He grabbed her face with his teeth and they swam cheek to cheek. Then they spawned and parted.”

With the fertilised eggs deposited in the sand, the male spends several days fanning the eggs with his fins to keep them oxygenated, his elaborate nest disappearing in the process. With the eggs hatched, he swims off to find another site to demonstrate his building prowess.

As Attenborough says, “It is unbelievable, really unbelievable.” 

How to build a boudoir

1. First, find a nice sandy site, preferably at a depth of 10—30m.

2. Using pectoral and tail fins, burrow back and forth to create channels in the sand. / Build ridges — resembling the spokes in a wheel — by stirring up the sand.

3. To entice your paramour into the wheel’s hub, clear it of any weed and shell fragments and smooth over the sand.

4. Masterpiece completed, it’s time to find a suitably amorous female. 

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Life Story is on BBC1 tonight (20th November) at 9.00pm