Ameiurus melas

black bullhead



Type Locality

Ohio River (Rafinesque 1820).


Etymology/Derivation of Scientific Name

Greek, Ameiurus, meaning “privative curtailed,” in reference to the caudal fin lacking a notch; and Greek, melas, meaning “black” (Simon and Wallus 2004).



Silurus melas Rafinesque 1820:51.

Amiuris melas Hay 1881:513, 1883:72.

Ameiurus melas Boschung 1989:68.

Ictalurus melas Cook 1959:139; Medford and Simco 1971:122; Mettee et al. 1987:125, 1989:94 (Ross 2001).



Maximum size: 620 mm TL (Page and Burr 1991).


Coloration: Chin barbels blackish (Hubbs et al. 1991). Back and sides are black or yellowish brown; undersides white. Fin membranes fairly densely pigmented, and are much blacker than rays. Young fish usually black (Ross 2001). Peritoneum heavily speckled with black (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


Counts: Anal fin rays 17-23 (Hubbs et al. 1991); 16-20 gill rakers; 6 dorsal rays; 6-9 pectoral rays; 7-8 pectoral rays (Ross 2001); 8-9 branchiostegal rays (Simon and Wallus 2004).


Body shape: Moderately elongate, robust body, little compressed laterally (Simon and Wallus 2004); head rounded (Hubbs et al. 1991).


Mouth position: Terminal; slightly subterminal (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


External morphology: Caudal fin square or slightly emarginated; eye contained in snout length 2.4 or fewer times; adipose fin free at tip (Hubbs et al. 1991); anal rays 3-5 are 1.5-2.0 times the length of the last few posterior rays (Ross 2001). In females urinary and genital ducts have separate external openings; in males, these ducts have only one common opening (Moen 1959).


Internal morphology: Ratio of digestive tract to total length: DT 0.8-1.5 TL; intestine well differentiated, coiled (Goldstein and Simon 1999); premaxillary band of teeth on upper jaw without a lateral backward extension on each side (Hubbs et al. 1991).


Distribution (Native and Introduced)

U.S. distribution: Southern ON, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, south to Gulf of Mexico, and from MT to Appalachians; widely introduced outside native range (Glodek 1980).


Texas distribution: Native distribution statewide, except Trans-Pecos drainages; widely introduced throughout the state (Hubbs et al. 1991). Warren et al. (2000) listed the following drainage units for distribution of Ameiurus melas in the state: Red River (from the mouth upstream to and including the Kiamichi River), Sabine Lake (including minor coastal drainages west to Galveston Bay), Galveston Bay (including minor coastal drainages west to mouth of Brazos River), Brazos River, Colorado River.  Natural range of the species occupies the Texan, Kansan, Austroriparian and Tamaulipan (except Rio Grande drainage) biotic provinces (Hubbs 1957).


Abundance/Conservation status (Federal, State, NGO):

Populations in the southern United States are currently stable (Warren et al. 2000).


Habitat Associations

Macrohabitat: Ponds, pools of all sizes in streams and rivers, and in swampy habitats throughout range (Glodek 1980); avoids large streams (Stevenson et al. 1974). Rarely found in Lake Texoma (Oklahoma and Texas) and tailwaters, but occasionally common in some larger tributaries; was common in lake following impoundment, but numbers have steadily declined (Riggs and Bonn 1959). Found in Brazos River (Texas) oxbow lakes (Winemiller et al. 2000; Zeug et al. 2005). Found only in cutoff pools and oxbows of the Illinois River in Oklahoma (Moore 1950).


Mesohabitat: Occurs in areas of sluggish current over soft substrates and around accumulated debris; usually found in small, low-gradient streams with turbid waters and silt bottoms; in large lakes, occupies shallow turbid waters over mud bottom with moderate amounts of rooted aquatic vegetation; found in muddy oxbows (Simon and Wallus 2004). In the Missouri River, Robinson (1977) reported collection of specimens exclusively in slow moving water along mud banks. Fish will reduce their buoyancy as stream flow increases, in order to prevent being carried away; the fish will increase pressure on the gases in the swimbladder, so that gases are released through the pneumatic duct or are absorbed into the blood (Machniak and Gee 1975). In Michigan, Cooper and Washburn (1949) reported that the species survived winterkill oxygen concentrations of <0.2-0.3 ppm. Campbell and Branson (1978) reported upper temperature tolerance from 36-38°C.



Spawning season: Spawns in late spring and early summer (Carlander 1969) when water temperatures reach 20-22°C (Wallace 1967; Dennison and Bulkley 1972).


Spawning location: Speleophils – hole nesters; cavity spawner (Wallace 1967; Simon 1999). In aquaria, a pair nested in a shallow depression scooped out of the bottom, the diameter of which was about equal to fish’s length (Fowler 1917).


Reproductive strategy: Guarders; nest spawners (Simon 1999; Wallace 1967). Female excavated nest by fanning pelvic and anal fins, and pushing small pebbles away with snout. During spawning, male and female position themselves in opposite directions, the male twisting his caudal fin so that it covered the head and eyes of the female. Male positioned ventral part of body at 45° angle to abdomen of female. Eggs were deposited; the female fanned and guarded them on the first day, and the male did so on the following days (Wallace 1967). Both male and female assumed charge of nest and aggressively guarded the young (Fowler 1917). Forney (1955) observed one or more adults guarding schools of young fish, ranging in size from 15-25 mm TL, in the shallow area along the shore; adults apparently abandon young shortly after they have attained the latter size.


Fecundity: In Clear Lake, Iowa, fecundity varied widely among females, even for fish of similar sizes, with counts ranging from 2047-5495 (Dennison and Bulkley 1972). Forney (1955) reported average egg count of 3,283 from females measuring 203-227 mm TL, and an average of 3,845 eggs from 229-251 mm TL females, in Clear Lake, Iowa population. In aquaria, a female deposited 200 pale creamy-white eggs; eggs hatched in 5 days at unspecified temperature (Fowler 1917). Ripe ovarian eggs are golden yellow to orange, and are 2-3 mm in diameter; fertilized eggs are demersal, adhesive, 3 mm in diameter, covered in a gelatinous coat, and they adhere together in a mass when deposited (Simon and Wallus 2004).


Age/size at maturation: In the Mississippi River, Illinois, sexual maturity reached at 254 mm and at age III (Carlander 1969). Smallest mature female and male specimens from Clear Lake, Iowa, measured 171 mm TL and 215 mm TL, respectively (Dennison and Bulkley 1972).


Migration: NA


Longevity: 8 years (Forney 1955).


Food habits: Goldstein and Simon (1999) listed first and second level trophic classifications for the species as invertivore/carnivore, and benthic/whole body, respectively. Main food items include a variety of invertebrates and fish (Carlander 1969). Stomach contents of Wisconsin specimens 40-60 mm SL revealed 54.1% amphipods (Hyalella azteca), 19.2% insect larvae, 15.1% organic detritus, 4.5% insect adults, 3.4% fungi and algae, 2.8% small crayfish, and 0.9% miscellaneous; peaks in feeding activity occurred just before dawn and shortly after dark (Darnell and Meierotto 1962). During periods of stable water levels in Beaver Reservoir (White River, Arkansas and Missouri), 72% of the food volume of young-of-the-year fish (<102 mm TL) was composed of Entomostraca, while 94% of the food volume of 102-287 mm TL fish was comprised of filamentous algae, organic detritus, and crayfish during the same period. In contrast, when water levels rose during winter and spring months, 56% of the food volume of fish >102 mm TL was composed of terrestrial animals, and 26% filamentous algae (Applegate and Mullan 1967). In Clear Lake, Iowa, the main food item of adults was chironomid larvae; young fish (<25 mm TL) fed exclusively on entomostraca, but insect larvae became an important food item as their size increased (Forney 1955). The Clear Lake, Iowa population increased utilization of small fish during the summer (Welker 1963). In central Kentucky, Campbell and Branson (1978) reported that the adult diet included various items, yet it was predominantly comprised of chironomid larvae; larval feeding was found to be highly selective, with fish consuming the aquatic amphipod Hyalella, ostracods, and adult copepods. In a dredged Iowa lake, yearling fish consumed mainly dipterous larvae and pupae, and mayfly nymphs, and displayed a tendency to consume larger food items as they progressed through the yearling stage; adults fed primarily on insects, but fed opportunistically, consuming a measurable amount of filamentous green algae (Stigeoclonium); adults showed preference for the shallow-water dwelling ceratopogonid (biting midge larvae; Kutkuhn 1955). Pearse (1918) summarized food content of specimens analyized from Wisconsin lakes as 45.1% insects (35.2% larvae, 4.2% pupae, 5.7% adults), and 21.4% oligochaetes (young fish consuming more of this item than adults). Fish apparently have greatest digestive capacity during summer months; most likely, fish exist at reduced activity levels on stored fat and glycogen, during winter months (Nordlie 1966).


Growth: In Oklahoma, averaged 94 mm TL after one year, and 170, 229, 274, 312 and 351 mm TL after years 2-6 respectively; growth was faster in new populations, especially those in reservoirs, than that in streams and overly populated ponds (Houser and Collins 1962).


Phylogeny and morphologically similar fishes:

The yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis) has whitish chin barbels, 24-27 anal rays (Hubbs et al. 1991), and has the third to fifth anal rays about equal to the posterior anal rays (Ross 2001).


Host Records:

Mayberry et al. (2000) listed parasite species infecting Ameiurus melas, reported from Texas, including Cestoda (Proteocephalidae, Procephalus); Trematoda (Allocreadium ictaluri, Alloglossidium geminus, Gyrodactylus, Phyllodistomum caudatum, Posthodiplostumum minimum, Pseudomagnivitellinum ictalurum).


Commercial or Environmental Importance:


[Additional literature noting collection of this species from Texas locations includes, but is not limited to the following: Hubbs (1954); Gunter (1950); Whiteside and McNatt (1972); Champ et al. (1973); Carroll et al. (1977); Yeh (1977); Evans and Noble (1979); Rose and Echelle (1981); Platania (1990); Linam et al. (1994); Matthews et al. (1996); Armstrong (1998); Bonner and Wilde (2000); Edwards et al. (2002); Hebert and Gelwick (2003).]



Applegate, R.L. and J.W. Mullan. 1967. Food of the black bullhead (Ictalurus melas) in a new reservoir. Proc. S.E. Assoc. Game Fish Comm. 20:288-292.

Armstrong, M.P. 1998. A fishery survey of the Middle Brazos River Basin in North-Central Texas. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 2. 26 pp.

Bonner, T.H., and G.R. Wilde. 2000. Changes in the Canadian River fish assemblage associated with reservoir construction. Journal of Freshwater Ecology 15(2):189-198.

Boschung, H.T. 1989. Atlas of fishes of the upper Tombigbee River drainage, Alabama-Mississippi. Proc. S.E. Fishes Council 19:1-104.

Campbell, R.D. and B.A. Branson. 1978. Ecology and population dynamics of the black bullhead, Ictalurus melas (Rafinesque), in central Kentucky. Tulane Studies of Zoology and Botany 20(3-4):99-136.

Carlander, K.D. 1969. Handbook of Freshwater Fishery Biology. Volume I. The Iowa State University Press, Ames. 752 pp.

Carroll, J.H., Jr., D. Ingold, and M. Bradley. 1977. Distribution and species diversity of summer fish populations in two channelized rivers in northeast Texas. The Southwestern Naturalist 22 (1):128-134.

Champ, M.A., J.T. Lock; C.D. Bjork, W.G. Klussman, and J.D. McCullou. 1973. Effects of anhydrous ammonia on a central Texas pond, and a review of previous research with ammonia in fisheries management. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 102(1):73-82.

Cook, F.A. 1959. Freshwater Fishes in Mississippi. Mississippi Game and Fish Commission, Jackson. 239 pp.

Cooper, G.P., and G.N. Washburn. 1949. Relation of dissolved oxygen to winter mortality of fishes in lakes. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 76(1):23-33.

Darnell, R.M. and R.R. Meierotto. 1962. Determination of feeding chronology in fishes. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 91:313-320.

Dennison, S.G. and R.V. Bulkley. 1972. Reproductive potential of the black bullhead, Ictalurus melas, in Clear Lake, Iowa. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 1972(3):483-487.

Edwards, R.J., G.P. Garrett, and E. Marsh-Matthews. 2002. Conservation and status of the fish communities inhabiting the Conchos Basin and Middle Rio Grande, Mexico and U.S.A. Review in Fish Biology and Fisheries 12:119-132.

Evans, J.W., and R.L. Noble. The longitudinal distribution of fishes in an east Texas stream. American Midland Naturalist 101(2):333-343.

Forney, J.L. 1955. Life history of the black bullhead, Ameiurus melas, of Clear Lake Iowa. Iowa State Journal of Science. 30(1):145-162.

Fowler, H.W. 1917. Some notes on the breeding habits of local catfishes. Copeia 42:32-36.

Glodek, G.S. 1980. Ictalurus melas (Rafinesque), Black bullhead. pp. 441 in D. S. Lee, et al. Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes. N. C. State Mus. Nat. Hist., Raleigh, i-r+854 pp.

Goldstein, R.M., and T.P. Simon. 1999. Toward a united definition of guild structure for feeding ecology of North American freshwater fishes. pp. 123-202 in T.P. Simon, editor. Assessing the sustainability and biological integrity of water resources using fish communities. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida. 671 pp.

Gunter, G. 1950. Distributions and abundance of fishes on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, with life history notes. Publ. Inst. Mar. Sci., Univ. Texas 1(2):89-101.

Hay, O.P. 1881. On a collection of fishes from eastern Mississippi. Proc. U.S. Nat. Mus. 3:488-515.

Hay, O.P. 1883. On a collection of fishes from lower Mississippi valley. Proc. Bull. U.S. Fish Comm. 2:57-75.

Hebert, M.E., and F.P. Gelwick. 2003. Spatial variation of headwater fish assemblages explained by hydrologic variability and upstream effects of impoundment. Copeia 2003(2):273-284.

Houser, A., and C. Collins. 1962. Growth of black bullhead catfish in Oklahoma. Oklahoma Fisheries Res. Lab. Rept. 79:1-18.

Hubbs, C. 1954. Corrected distributional records for Texas fresh-water fishes. Texas Journal of Science 1954(3):277-291.

Hubbs, C. 1957. Distributional patterns of Texas fresh-water fishes. The Southwestern Naturalist 2(2/3):89-104.

Hubbs, C., R.J. Edwards, and G.P.Garrett. 1991. An annotated checklist of the freshwater fishes of Texas, with keys to identification of species. Texas Journal of Science, Supplement 43(4):1-56.

Kutkuhn, J.H. 1955. Food and feeding habits of some fishes in a dredged Iowa lake. Proc. Iowa. Acad. Sci. 62:576-588.

Linam, G.W., J.C. Henson, and M.A. Webb. 1994. A fisheries inventory and assessment of Allens Creek and the Brazos River, Austin County, Texas. River Studies Report No. 12. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin. 13 pp.

Machniak, K., and J.H. Gee. 1975. Adjustment of buoyancy by tadpole madtom, Noturus gyrinus, and black bullhead, Ictalurus melas, in response to change in water velocity. Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada 32:303-307.

Matthews, W.J., M.S. Schorrs, M.R. Meador. 1996. Effects of experimentally enhanced stream flows on fish of a small Texas (U.S.A.) stream: assessing the impact of interbasin transfer. Freshwater Biology 35:349-362.

Mayberry, L.F., A.G. Canaris, and J.R. Bristol. 2000. Bibliography of parasites and vertebrate host in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas (1893-1984). University of Nebraska Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology Web Server pp. 1-100.

Medford, D.W., and B.A. Simco. 1971. The fishes of the Wolf Fiver, Tennessee and Mississippi. J. Tenn. Acad. Sci. 46(4):121-123.

Mettee, M.F., P.R. O'Neil, R.D. Suttkus, and J.M. Pierson. 1987. Fishes of the lower Tombigbee River system in Alabama and Mississippi. Geol. Surv. Ala. Bull. 107:1-186.

Mettee, M.F., P.R. O'Neil, R.D. Suttkus, and J.M. Pierson. 1989. Fishes of the western Mobile River Basin in Alabama and Mississippi. Atlas 24. Geological Survey of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.

Moen, T. 1959. Sexing of channel catfish. Texas Journal of Science 88(2):149.

Moore, G.A., and J.M. Paden. 1950. The fishes of the Illinois River in Oklahoma and Arkansas. American Midland Naturalist 44(1):76-95.

Nordlie, F.G. 1966. Acclimation and peptic digestive capacity in the black bullhead, Ictalurus melas (Raf.). American Midland Naturalist 75(2):416-424.

Page, L.M., and B.M. Burr. 1991. A Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America, north of Mexico. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 432 pp.

Pearse, A.S. 1918. The food of the shore fishes of certain Wisconsin lakes. Bulletin of the Bureau of Fisheries 35:245-292.

Platania, S.P. 1990. The Ichthyofauna of the Rio Grande drainage, Texas and Mexico, from Boquillas to San Ygnacio. Report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 2. 100 pp.

Rafinesque, C.S. 1820. Description of the Silures of catfishes of the River Ohio. Quart. J. Sci. Lit. Arts 9:48-52.

Riggs, C.D., and E.W. Bonn. 1959. An annotated list of the fishes of Lake Texoma, Oklahoma and Texas. The Southwestern Naturalist 4(4):157-168.

Robinson, J.W. 1977. The utilization of dikes by certain fishes in the Missouri River. Federal Aid Project No. 2-199-R. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City. 14 pp.

Rose, D.R., and A.A. Echelle. 1981. Factor analysis of associations of fishes in Little River, Central Texas, with an interdrainage comparison. American Midland Naturalist 106(2):379-391.


Ross, S.T. 2001. The Inland Fishes of Mississippi. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson. 624 pp.

Simon, T.P. 1999. Assessment of Balon’s reproductive guilds with application to Midwestern North American Freshwater Fishes, pp. 97-121. In: Simon, T.L. (ed.). Assessing the sustainability and biological integrity of water resources using fish communities. CRC Press. Boca Raton, Florida. 671 pp.

Simon, T.P., and R. Wallus. 2004. Reproductive Biology and Early Life History of Fishes in the Ohio River Drainage, Volume 3: Ictaluridae – Catfish and Madtoms. CRC Press, New York, New York. 204 pp.

Stevenson, M.M., G.D. Schnell, and R. Black. 1974. Factor analysis of fish distribution patterns in western and central Oklahoma. Systematic Zoology 23(2):202-218.

Wallace, C. 1967. Observation on the reproductive behavior of the black bullhead (Ictalurus melas) Copeia 1967(4):852-853.

Warren, M.L., Jr., B.M. Burr, S.J. Walsh, H.L. Bart, Jr., R.C. Cashner, D.A. Etnier, B.J. Freeman, B. R. Kuhajda, R.L. Mayden, H.W. Robison, S.T. Ross, and W.C. Starnes. 2000. Diversity, Distribution, and Conservation status of the native freshwater fishes of the southern United States. Fisheries 25(10):7-29.

Welker, B.D. 1963. Summer food habits of yellow bass and black bullheads in Clear Lake. Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science 69:286-295.

Whiteside, B.G., and R.M. McNatt. 1972. Fish species diversity in relation to stream order and physicochemical conditions in the Plum Creek drainage basin. American Midland Naturalist 88(1):90-101.

Winemiller, K.O., S.Tarim, D.Schormann, and J.B. Cottner. 2000. Fish assemblage structure in relation to environmental variation among Brazos River oxbow lakes. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 129:451-468.

Yeh, C.F. 1977. Relative selectivity of fishing gear used in a large reservoir in Texas. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 106(4):309-313.

Zueg, S.C., K.O. Winemiller, and S. Tarim. 2005. Response of Brazos River fish assemblages to patterns of hydrologic connectivity and environmental variability. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 134:1389-1399.