by Tyler Phillips

School of white catfish, Ameiurus catus, in Little River Cavern
Photo by Michael Gibby

Catfishes are a diverse group of fish, so called for their prominent barbels around their mouth, which resemble a cat's whiskers. They all have an excellent sense of hearing, and touch, which they use for detecting prey and predators.

There are more than 3000 species of catfish worldwide, and they vary greatly in size and behavior from the heaviest and longest, the Mekong Giant Catfish from Southeast Asia (which can grow as long as 10 feet, and weigh in at 800 pounds), to a tiny parasitic species called the candiru.

More than half of all catfish species live in the Americas. They are found predominately in freshwater environments; and most inhabit shallow, running water. Some species live in freshwater caves, and a few others are found in salt water.

School of catfish in Manatee Cave

Catfish most likely to be seen in the waters of Florida are the Channel, Flathead, Blue and Yellow catfish.

Blue catfish, Ictalurus furcatus, at Peacock Springs

Catfish are negatively buoyant (due in part to a reduced swim bladder and a heavy, bony head), so they spend most of their lives on the bottom. They have a flattened mouth that allows them to dig through the substrate to find food (bottom/benthic feeders). Most catfish's mouths contain no teeth, but their mouths can expand to a large size so they feed by suction or gulping rather than cutting or biting their prey.

Catfish at Eagles Nest

Catfish in the run at Blue Springs

Catfish may have up to four pairs of barbels: nasal, maxillary (on each side of mouth), and two pairs of chin barbels, depending on the species. Catfish have no scales, their bodies are often smooth. Some species of catfish can actually "breathe" through their skin!

Flathead Catfish, Pylodictis olivaris. This species is found in the Apalachicola and Escambia rivers and their springs, they arrived to Florida pretty recently from Georgia and Alabama.
Picture courtesy of the FWS

Two other species of catfish commonly referred to as bullhead are also quite prevalent in the Brown and Yellow varieties. Bullhead catfish can be distinguished by the lack of a “split” tailfin and a shorter, bulkier body.