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Related Catfish FAQs:  Ictalurid Catfishes, Identification, Behavior, Compatibility, Selection, Systems, Feeding, Disease, Reproduction

Related Articles: Catfishes,  Coldwater Catfishes, Pondfish Profile by Neale Monks,

/A Diversity of Aquatic Life

Bullheads, Channels, Madtoms/Stonecats: The American Catfishes of the Family Ictaluridae (formerly Ameiuridae)


Bob Fenner Ameiurus melas  

    This group, the only indigenous family of North American freshwater catfishes is much heralded and hated... liked as food and gamefishes for many species, disregarded as pests for some others. They are characterized by possession of four pairs of barbels on their snouts and jaws, naked skins spine in pectoral (and dorsal fins except Prietella) and toothless palates (with the exception of Astephus). There are three naturally blind/eye-less species, in a total of seven genera of forty-five species. 


    Southern Canada to Guatemala. Many introduced elsewhere as food and game fishes.


    To a maximum of 1.6 meters (Ictalurus furcatus, Pylodictis olivaris). Some only a hand's length, many only a few inches.


    Though often kept in stagnant ponds for fishing and culture, most ictalurid cats occur in moving waters and are best kept in captivity under this circumstance. Having brisk water movement is conducive to two other important qualities these fishes enjoy: high dissolved oxygen content and metabolite-limited water quality.

    Larger gravel or even smooth stones are best for their tank bottom and if you intend to keep live plants with them, these are best "blind potted" in clay pots or such, rising above the "gravel level" to keep your cats from uprooting them. These are largely nocturnal to crepuscular animals so lighting should be slight and diffuse. At least one good "dark hole" should be provided per specimen, made of rock for caves, tipped over clay pots, pipe et al.

    By and large water quality in terms of pH, hardness and temperature are not critical. Water of moderation in all these qualities, and kept that way through careful maintenance, particularly regular water changes, under-crowding, under-feeding, will serve well to keep these fishes in good health. As long as the place your tank is located is relatively stable thermally (like in a house), you can likely dispense with a heater, as these are "locals", cool to coldwater native North American species. On the flipside here, summers may be a cause for concern, with you having to leave your lights off during the day and the hood open (be careful to lower your water level to discount "jumping out"), possibly a fan added to blow across the water's surface... to lower temperature... and maybe even a container of frozen water added as a temporary move to lower excessively warm water. How warm is too much? Your cat/s will show in how they behave. Labored breathing, especially up near the surface is a warning sign that should not be ignored. In addition to the above countervailing strategies, adding aeration, circulation may save the day when temperatures soar.


    For the larger ictalurids, and even for ones of moderate size, the choice in what to keep with them is important, lest the latter become meals. Check out the "baits" used for catfishing... "stink baits" made of chicken entrails, animal blood, Limburger cheese... grasshoppers, crayfish... these fishes will eat anything that will fit into their mouths that they can get hold of. Don't let these apparently lethargic lay-abouts mislead you... at night they are very fast predators that can, will inhale your other livestock if small enough.

    Ideal companions include other North American fishes like the many sunfishes, family Centrarchidae ("basses", pumpkinseeds, crappie, bluegills...), as well as large-enough native minnows, darters, even salmonids if you have a very large system with concurrent filtration, circulation and aeration.

Genus Ameiurus: Bullheads; seven species. Formerly listed as Ictalurus spp. 

Ameiurus melas (Rafinesque 1820), the Black Bullhead Catfish. To 62 cm., 3.6 kg, some ten years in age. Cond.s: pH 6.5-8, dH 4-25, temp. 8-30 C. North America; Great Lakes to Mexico. Nocturnal feeders in the wild on insects, fishes, crustaceans, worms, algae. Aquarium photo.

Genus Ictalurus: Channel Catfishes; nine species, five that are only found in Mexico, Guatemala.

Ictalurus punctatus (Rafinesque 1818), the Channel Catfish. To 132 cm., 27 kg, 16 years of age. Cond.s: pH 6-8, dH 4-30, temp. 10-32 C. Canada to northern Mexico. A valuable food, game and ornamental fish species. Feeds readily on fishes, crustaceans, mollusks, worms... Shown: a "regular" and albino variety in captivity. Very cute when sold as small specimens in fish stores... but grow QUICK! And eat many other fish tankmates in the process. Will NOT "grow to the size of your aquarium".

Genus Noturus: Stonecats, Madtoms; about 25 species subdivided into three sub-genera (see Goldstein). Have poison glands at the base of their pectoral fins and adipose fins that are continuous with their rounded caudals. Eighteen or so species are protected against collection, others can be caught at night in minnow traps and discarded cans, or by digging up gravel and rocks and sorting this on the shoreline, larger ones with small hooks and line.



Genus Prietella:  Prietella are Mexican Blind Cats, of pink hue (melanin absent), lacking eyes. Two species.

Genus Pylodictis (Flathead Cat): A distinctive giant. Monotypic, P. olivaris can grow to more than 1.5 meter in length.

Genera Trogloglanis, Satan, One species each as well. These are subterranean blind cats with a very restricted distribution. Found only in Bexar County, Texas in five artesian wells drawing from the San Antonio River... at more than a thousand feet underground.  


    The ictalurids are, to put it mildly, not finicky eaters. They will gluttonously consume most any food stuff in quantity. Sinking foods are preferred of course, with pellets, cut meats like beef heart or fish flesh, and their favorite, earthworms especially relished. If you run into a lack of feeding problem with these cats, look first to something amiss with your water quality, and then try earthworms, whole or chopped toward "lights out" time.


    The one "Achilles heel" down-side to these otherwise tough fishes is their susceptibility to infectious and parasitic disease, particularly the scourge of freshwater aquarists, ich or white-spot. If caught early this protozoan infestation can be cured with traditional remedies, though my favorite is 25 ppm of formalin... if not treated promptly, this family, particularly its young, can be wiped out in short order.

Hobbyist Injuries:

    I want to make mention of the possibility of receiving a nasty puncture wound, possibly with venom, from (mis)handling these fishes. The stout spine in front of their pectoral fins in particular is to be respected, even with small specimens and species, but do watch out for the dorsal spine as well. If/when handling ictalurids in a net, take care to support their body with your hand well BEHIND their heads, and firmly, releasing the fish head first into wherever it is going.


    Some of the ictalurids, particularly the Channel Catfish, Ictalurus punctatus, are intensely cultured as food and game fishes. Indeed, there is more catfish consumed in the United States than tuna, in cans plus out. There are whole catfish trade organizations, Catfish Chow by Purina, even Catfish Queens, beauty contest winners in parts of the country where this fish is a farming mainstay. As you can imagine their reproduction is well-worked out. The family, where known, has similar breeding habits. In the wild these cats spawn in the spring, a bit later as one goes northward where the water is colder. Spawning occurs typically in a cave or under rocks, out of light, though some species dig a small depression in the bottom to spawn. Culturists capitalize on this behavior to collect spawn by providing submersed milk cans, pipe conduit, et al. Pairs of catfish are kept with their own area and container for spawning, with the males guarding the fertilized eggs. In culture, these nests are checked for eggs and these are removed for hatching, rearing elsewhere. Depending on temperature, eggs "hatch out" in three to five days with the parents remaining on guard.

    Males are typically larger (by age), with broader and flatter heads. Females swell with eggs during spawning readiness.


    Though more appreciated as food animals, even gamefishes than aquarium specimens, the North American catfishes of the family Ictaluridae have much to recommend them. They are by and large not particular re their surroundings, relatively tough in terms of water quality and more than accepting of all types of foods. If you have a "native" biotope especially, do consider adding a species or two. For folks with large cichlids, other rough and tumble assortments of freshwater aquarium fishes, even ponds, the ictalurid cats have species of use for you. What? You say no one offers these fishes for sale in your area? Maybe it's time to get out a jar, make your own "stink bait" and get to fishin'! Do look into the ultimate, likely size of the species you have in mind or tank... the commonly available ones grow quickly... and large!


Bibliography/Further Reading:

Catfishes on the Internet: http://phylogeny.arizona.edu/tree/eukaryotes/animals/chordata/actinopterygii/siluriformes/siluriformes.html

Planet Catfish: http://www.planetcatfish.com/core/index.htm

North American Native Fishes Association (NANFA): http://www.nanfa.org/ Check them out!

Burgess, Warren E. 1989. An Atlas of Freshwater and Marine Catfishes. Tropical Fish Hobbyist Publications. NJ, USA. pp. 786.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World, 3d ed.. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. NY. 600pp.

Castro, Alfred D. 1996. Channel Catfish. They eat, they grow, they eat, they grow... you get the idea. AFM 2/96.

Finley, Lee. 1995. Freshwater catfishes of New England. TFH 5/95.

Goldstein, Robert J. 1999. Introduction to the (American) catfishes. FAMA 8/99.

Goldstein, Robert J. 1999. Schilbeodes, the unblotched Madtoms. FAMA 9/99.

Mayden, Richard L. 1983. Madtoms, America's miniature catfishes. TFH 8/83.

Padovani, Gian. 1993. The "all American" catfish. FAMA 8/93.

Rice, Robert. 2001. Those maddening Madtoms. FAMA 1/01.

Walker, Braz. 1974. The Channel Catfish, Ictalurus punctatus. TFH 5/74.

Walls, Jerry G. 1991. The name game: Ameiurus vs. Ictalurus v. Amiurus. TFH 5/91.


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