Wild Profile: Meet the brown bullhead catfish

An adult brown bullhead catfish underwater By Rostislav Stefanek/Shutterstock

The grumpy-faced, bottom-feeding brown bullhead catfish isn’t pretty—but it is fascinating. For one thing, like other catfish, the bullhead has no scales, only a thick skin. (Trivia alert: allegedly, this is the source of the phrase “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”) This fish also has the ability to breathe air—by sticking its face out of the water and gulping it—and “talk”: catfish make a croaking noise when they’re caught and removed from the water. Creepy.

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The brown bullhead catfish spends the summer in warm, sometimes even stagnant water; by October, it moves to larger, deeper areas of the lake. Unlike other fish, catfish aren’t sensitive to water pollution, and can survive with no oxygen far longer than any other species. (Another trivia alert: the non-native “walking catfish” can wriggle across land for up to 12 hours, moving from one water body to another. So creepy.) Catfish have poor eyesight, but still hunt and scavenge at night. In dark, weedy water, they use their barbels—long whiskers sprouting from their face—to detect food.

This mammal eats faster than any other creature on earth and can smell underwater

Strangely, taste buds line the brown bullhead catfish’s entire body, though most are concentrated in their barbels. This allows the fish to locate flavour flowing through the water from five metres away. The fish also have a keen sense of smell, strong enough to detect other catfish and discern whether the neighbour is a potential rival or potential mate.

Other fish—along with otters and osprey—prey on catfish, but kitty has a sneaky defence: sharp spines on its fin that it can erect when a predator attacks. The bullhead’s spines don’t produce venom (some other species of catfish are venomous), but they’re slimy, covered in bacteria, and can hurt a hungry, biting pike or muskie.

Brown bullheads may have a lot of strange qualities, but we’ll give them this: they’re excellent parents. A male and female pair makes the nest together. Once the eggs are inside, both guard, fan, and rearrange the clutch. When the eggs hatch into tiny fish the size of a grain of rice, they stay in the nest for about a week, with Mom and Dad Catfish watching closely. Once the baby fish are active, the parents stay with their young for several more weeks, shepherding the offspring around in huge herds of up to 13,000. That’s a lot of children! Think of the college tuition costs.


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