A FIVE-year-old boy is back on his badly injured feet recovering from surgery after a rare attack by a pufferfish.
Tom Horn, 5, suffered horrific wounds to both feet when he was savaged by the 30cm-long tropical fish while wading with his family in shallow water off the beach on Thursday Island, Queensland.
Doctors at Cairns Base Hospital had to operate twice after huge chunks of flesh were gouged out in the mauling two months ago. Surgeons plan to write a report for a medical journal to document the extremely rare case.
The schoolboy received about 30 stitches and needed two weeks in hospital on antibiotics after the ordeal.
"You can't go anywhere in the tropics without some creature trying to take a chunk out of you," joked Tom's father, police officer Jamie Horn, who saw the attack on January 29.
"They were unbelievable wounds - the ball of his left big toe was missing and a chunk of flesh was missing out of his right heel.
"You would not think a pufferfish could be so vicious."
In the hit animated film Finding Nemo, Bloat the pufferfish is a gentle character more akin to a faulty blow-up toy. But in the wild they are described as "a cross between a tadpole and a great white shark", capable of taking off fingers, toes and ears.
"Tom's wounds have healed up beautifully and fortunately he's not scared of the water," said Sgt Horn, officer-in-charge on Thursday Island.
"Lots of other stories about encounters with pufferfish have emerged since his attack."
Marine expert Dr Peter Doherty, research director at the Townsville-based Australian Institute of Marine Science, said he too nearly lost a finger to a pufferfish.
"They've got a great set of jaws with a beak like a parrot-fish for crushing up coral and rock," Dr Doherty said.
"I put my hand into a bucket of fish, and it latched on to my finger and almost bit the whole finger off."