Catfish: Understanding These Scavengers
by Dave Ball
President of the Southern Colorado Aquarium Society
When an aquarist makes the decision to introduce catfish into the community aquarium or
to set-up an aquarium dedicated to a group of catfish, understanding the needs of these
fish is a must. Catfish are a large group of fishes that are regarded by most as a single
order called Siluriformes (sometimes called Nematognathi). Others place
them as a suborder, Siluroidei, of the order Cypriniformes. However, in
most classifications after 1966, the catfishes are considered an order, the Siluriformes,
consisting of 32 families. There are 2,200 plus species that fall under 400 genera of
catfish, most of which (some 1,300) inhabit the fresh waters of the New World. The
remaining species are scattered around the world with the greatest number occurring in
Africa and Asia. Temperature is the main reason that distribution is limited, few or no
species seem to be found in the extreme southern regions of South America nor in the
northern areas or Eurasia and North America. There are 2 families that inhabit brackish
and marine environments. They are the Plotosidae (Coral and Tandan Catfish) and
the Ariidae (Sea Catfish). South America has some of the most primitive catfish
found in the world today, making some of them the most unusual in the world.
Siluriformes have developed many different ways for each to adapt to its own
environment. The most important is the intake of available oxygen. The types of habitats
that catfish live in range from the still waters of lakes and ponds to the cool rapids of
mountain streams. Many require highly oxygenated water that is both clean and clear. Cool
water maintains a higher level of oxygen than the stagnant, silt-filled water of the
jungle ponds and swamps. Adaptations in this area are as diverse as the animals that
developed them through time. In the hill-streams of Asia and Africa the fish have a highly
modified mount for holding on to rocks and have modified gills to take in oxygen. This is
done by suspending breathing for a moment to allow a suction to form, then the intake is
totally controlled by the modified gills pumped solely by the movement of the operculum.
Some animals have taken this method a couple of steps further by having a streamlined body
and pectoral spines that assist in regulating the flow of water past the
operculum. Catfish do not have spines in the true sense that other fish have. They are
really a spinous ray, found in the pectoral, dorsal and sometimes the adipose
fins. The spinous rays found in the pectoral fins are unique in these animals because of
the fact that they are quite strong and often serrated on both sides. This makes them an
excellent defense weapon.
Other modifications for breathing include the use of the intestines by taking in air at
the surface (Loricariids and Callichthyids) , swallowing it and
absorbing it with the thin walls in the digestive tract. The remainder is passed on
through the vent. Species found in the genus Clarias have a labyrinth device.
Several other genera have multiple uses for the swim bladder, one of which is for
respiration. The Heter-opneustidae (Fossil Cats), have airsacs that run nearly
the entire length of their bodies which are connected at the second and third gill arches
by way of modified gill filaments and organs. These airsacs resemble lungs in regards to
function and appearance.
Many catfish have been placed in the unusual and even the oddball category in the
aquarium scene, and for good reason. They have adapted themselves to their own
environments very well by making multiple use of some of their features. The spinous rays
are just one of those items that have more than one use. Their strength and toothed edges
on the pectoral fins, used with the one in the dorsal fin, make for a great defense
mechanism against animals and humans alike. These make the fish a nasty mouthful. Nile
River crocodiles have been found on the banks of the river dead with catfish lodged in
their throats. Most of the time they are used as a stinger in a defensive or passive use.
Several of these animals take this defense a step further by adding poison. The poison
gland is normally located at the base of the pectoral fin and secreted through the spine
or its edges. Most noted is the previously mentioned Fossil Cat. This catfish
is not found in stores very often and must be handled properly. They are very aggressive
and will not hesitate to use their weapons. The sting from this animal will cause major
swelling and illness to the handler. Most stings from the other poisonous catfish deliver
the same effect but are rarely fatal. Some other fish have spines along the lateral scutes
and these are combined with thick skin and armored plates, making them very tough
customers to eat.
The swim bladder is another organ that has multiple uses in catfish. As was previously
mentioned respiration is just one use. One other use is to amplify the sound that is
created when the dorsal and pectoral spinous rays are moved in their sockets. The muscles
and filaments connected to these spinous rays and sockets are linked to the rear skull and
vertebrae in the spine in other catfish. These are also attached to the outer walls of the
swim bladder and act like springs. When contacted they cause the walls of the swim bladder
to vibrate and create a squeaking or croaking noise. This sensation can be felt with the
cooperation of the catfish, of course, by touching the fish on the soft part of the belly
between the pectoral spines. Doradidae (the Talking Catfishes) and Synodontis
(the Upside-down Catfishes) are the two most well known users of this defense mechanism.
Catfish use their swim bladder the same way that other fish use theirs, but catfish have
yet another use for theirs. Its called the Weberian Apparatus. This is a very
complex series of bones, muscles, and ligaments that connect the inner ear to the swim
bladder. What happens here is that the swim bladder is used to amplify sound that the fish
receives instead of being used to produce sound. Sound is picked-up through the inner ear,
then is passed on along a set of paired bones that are connected by ligaments to the rear
base of the skull and the modified fourth vertebrae. These bones make contact with the
swim bladder. The sound is then amplified by either direct or indirect method of
attachment to the swim bladder. This is a very effective way to detect many types of
threats the animals might face in the wild, and also makes them very hard to sneak up on
in the home aquarium.
The methods of feeding used by the Siluriformes are as varied as the diets
themselves. They range from algae and invertebrates to live fish. Some catfish are active
nocturnal predators, others search for snails and freshwater shrimp, and some scrape rock
and wood for algae. Invertebrates seem to be the one food that all catfish take in at
least some time in their lives. The family known as Trichomycteridae (the
Parasitic Catfish), are often found feeding on the gill tissue and blood of other fishes.
Another very unusual method of feeding is that of the Indian species of the Schilbeidae
family, where scales of other fish are the main staple in their diet. Catfish rarely use
their eyes to find food, instead food is detected by taste. Keep this in mind when
maintaining these animals. If it tastes good and the catfish can get its mouth around it,
consider it eaten. Catfish are high on the list of opportunistic feeders. Many aquarists
have lost their schools of small tetras while their catfish stay fat and healthy.
Swimming techniques are also varied, those that are good mid-water swimmers prefer to
be kept in groups and get very nervous if they arent. They are the Schilbeidae
(Glass and Pangasius Catfish), the Siluridae (Sheat Catfish), the Plotosidae
(Coral Cats) and some species of Mochokidae (Upside-down Catfish). Other catfish
that like to swim in groups live on or near the substrate, however, that would require
writing a list based on separate species and the list would a long one. Many of the larger
catfish tend to be solitary animals relying on armor or unique color patterns to give them
Understanding the differences between the families of catfish is very important. These
animals are filled with sensory organs that are there to help them survive. If not taken
care of properly, the animal may just be alive instead of thriving. Should proper care not
be taken into consideration, the animal will probably be lost which can be quite
expensive. These fish may be at the bottom of our tanks but they shouldnt be treated
as the last to get the good food the other fish receive. Keep this in mind and provide
hiding places, proper water quality, and they will repay you with many hours of enjoyment.
Burgess, Dr. Warren E., 1989. An Atlas of Freshwater and Marine Catfishes, A
Preliminary Survey of the Siluriformes. T.F.H. Publications, Inc., New Jersey.
Sands, David, 1986. A Fishkeepers Guide to African and Asian Catfishes.
Salamander Books, Ltd., London, England.
Petrovicky, Ivan, 1988. Aquarium Fishes of the World, The Hamlyn Publishing Group