Catfish Facts: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

If you have ever seen a catfish, you may be able to guess why it is named after a cat. But some other facts about these fish may surprise you! Read on to find out more about catfish.

No Ordinary Fish

Ever heard of a fish that could walk on land and breathe air? Or have you ever see a full-grown fish the size of a toothpick? If not, then it's time for you to learn more about a certain type of fish: catfish! That's right, these descriptions are both about types of catfish. Come join us as we learn more facts about this incredibly diverse group of swimmers.

What Are Features of Catfish?

Catfish are a group of fish named after our furry feline friends because of a distinguishing feature shared by both: whiskers! On a catfish, these long, whiskery projections are technically called barbels (not barbells like you use at the gym). They are sensory organs that can both smell and taste. This allows catfish to hunt in dark and murky waters.

Close look at a whiskery channel catfish

Catfish may have whiskers, but guess what they are missing: scales! That's right, most catfish have smooth, scaleless skin. They are usually found in fairly dull colors, such as bluish-gray and olive brown. Some species, such as the South American stick catfish, are covered in bony plates that protect them from predators.

In addition, most catfish have no teeth. Instead, they have grippy pads in their mouths that help them hold onto their food. Interestingly, in 2011 a new species of catfish was discovered in India. This highly unusual catfish surprisingly has four rows of sharp teeth. That's one fierce-looking catfish!

Like many other fish, catfish have spiny and rigid pectoral and dorsal fins. But these are no ordinary fins. They can sting, so one must be very careful around them. And one particular catfish has a very unique way of using its pectoral fins. Remember the fish that could walk on land? That's the Asian walking catfish, which uses its pectoral fins to 'walk' across land, while breathing air. That is one unique fish!

A captured walking catfish
walking catfish

How Big Are Catfish?

Catfish vary tremendously in size. The average sized channel catfish, a common American variety, is 1-2 feet long. But there is nothing average at all about the Mekong giant catfish from Asia. This monster fish can grow up to ten feet long, and weigh over 600 pounds! It is the world's largest scaleless freshwater fish. Compare that to the tiniest catfish, the parasitic candiru of South America. It is toothpick-sized, nearly transparent, and lives in the gills of other fish.

Illustration of tiny parasitic candiru catfish
Candiru catfish

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