There is a lot to appreciate about catfish. Perhaps that’s why August is designated National Catfish Month. Catfish have evolved some unique features that are certainly worth celebrating. In honour of this special month let’s take a closer look to gain a greater f appreciation for this unique group of fishes.
Catfish are one of the most diverse groups of fishes on the planet. Their order, Siluriformes, boasts nearly 3,000 different species! About one in every 20 vertebrates, (animals with backbones) is a catfish. Antarctica is the only continent where catfish are non-existent.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that catfish have developed some remarkable abilities. One species of catfish, Clarias batrachus, can walk on land. Yes, you read that correctly! The “walking catfish” can breathe air; it has a special organ that acts somewhat like a lung. In order to keep their skin moist while out of the water, these catfish are covered in a protective mucus layer. While their “walking” on land might look more like an awkward wriggling to us, this ability means that if they get stuck in a stagnant body of water they can go over land to find another place to live.
Since catfish often live in murky water with limited light, they’ve evolved other senses to help them “see” better in their usual environments. Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) have special chemosensory cells on their bodies, which is like being covered in a whole bunch of taste buds. These are especially concentrated around the barbels, (whiskers) where there are 25 million cells per square millimetre. This helps them to find food in their dark environment.
Channel catfish also highlight another amazing ability that catfish can have: communication. They can “talk” to each other using chemical signals in the water. With these signals they can determine the species, age and reproductive status of the other fish around them. They can use these signals to let other fish know when danger, like a fishing hook, is present. This can present a challenge to fishermen, who’ve noted rapid declines on their catches after a first day of fishing this species. They also use sound to communicate with one another. They’ve got special muscles in their swim bladders that help them to create vibrations in the water.
Aside from these amazing catfish abilities, they taste pretty great too. Channel catfish are heralded for their protein punch and a good source of healthy fatty acids, while being low in calories. They have a light and flaky flesh when cooked. There are a myriad of ways to prepare these fish: smoking, making soup or tacos, or creating a catfish po’boy. Best yet, they are an excellent sustainable seafood choice according to the Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise™ program. Best management practices are in place for them and that there is little to no bycatch or disease transfer concerns.
There is much to appreciate about catfishes, so let’s celebrate this interesting and delicious group of animals and enjoy National Catfish Month. Don’t forget to come and visit us at the Vancouver Aquarium and have a closer look at these fish. You can find nineteen different catfish species on display in our Tropic Zone and our Amazon Gallery. Look out for the razor-sharp ripsaw catfish in the Flooded Forest exhibit, and the upside-down catfish in our Congo River exhibit. So here’s to celebrating all things catfish; happy National Catfish Month!