Picture by Chad Thomas, Texas State University-San Marcos



Ictalurus punctatus

channel catfish



Type Locality

Ohio River (Rafinesque 1818).


Etymology/Derivation of Scientific Name

Ictalurus, Greek, meaning “fish cat;” punctatus, Latin, meaning “spotted,” in reference to the dark spots on the body (Pflieger 1997).



Silurus punctatus Rafinesque 1818b:355.

Ictalurus punctatus Hay 1881:513, 1883:72; Hildebrand and Towers 1928:120; Cook 1959:136.

Ictalurus anguilla Hildebrand and Towers 1928:120.



Maximum size: 1270 mm TL (Glodek 1980).


Life colors:  Juvenile fish silvery to pinkish white, with margins of the dorsal, adipose, caudal, and anal fins outlined in black. Larger fish dark blue along back and upper sides; females are lighter colored than males. Heads of breeding males blue-black. Fingerling catfish develop black spots by about 60-70 mm SL; spots gradually disappear in fish older than 3-5 years (Canfield 1947). Nasal barbels unpigmented to lightly speckled with melanophores, becoming darker in older fish. In small fish, barbels on lower jaw are unpigmented, in large fish they are dusky. Long maxillary barbels usually dusky (Ross 2001).


Counts: Anal fin rays 27-29 (Hubbs et al. 1991) ; 6-7 dorsal rays; 7-9 pectoral rays; 8-9 pelvic rays; 13-18 gill rakers (Ross 2001).


Body shape:  Elongate (Ross 2001).


Mouth position: Subterminal (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


External morphology: Lateral line complete, terminating at the base of the caudal rays (Sublette et al. 1990). Pectoral fin spine contained less than five times in standard length; caudal fin deeply forked; head rounded; adipose fin free at tip, not joined to caudal fin (Hubbs et al. 1991). Males with a distinctive urogenital papilla extending posteriorly, which is absent in females; there being one opening behind the vent in males, and two openings behind the vent in females (Moen 1959). In males, the head is wider than the body; in females, head is scarcely as wide as body (Davis 1959).  In breeding male, head becomes massive because of the swelling of the cranial musculature. Fin membranes thickened in breeding males (Sublette et al. 1990). Breeding males also have thickened lips and swellings behind the eyes (Crawford 1957).


Internal morphology: Premaxillary band of teeth on upper jaw without a lateral

backward extension on each side (Hubbs et al. 1991). Intestine well differentiated, coiled; peritoneum speckled with black; no pyloric caecae present (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


Distribution (Native and Introduced)

U.S. distribution: Widespread east of the Rocky Mountains in temperate North America (Hubbs et al. 1991).


Texas distribution: Ranges throughout state; presumably not native, but introduced, to the upper Rio Grande and Pecos basins (Hubbs et al. 1991). Warren et al. (2000) list the following drainage units for distribution of Ictalurus punctatus 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, San Antonio Bay (including minor coastal drainages west of mouth of Colorado River to mouth of Nueces River), Nueces River.


Abundance/Conservation status (Federal, State, NGO)

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


Habitat Associations

Macrohabitat: Medium to large rivers (Glodek 1980). Etnier and Starnes (1993) noted species adaptation to additional habitats including reservoirs, natural lakes, farm ponds, and larger trout streams.


Mesohabitat: Clear water, with swift currents over sand or gravel-rocky bottoms (Glodek 1980). In the Guadalupe River system, Texas, juveniles most often taken in riffles, while adults more common in pools (Hubbs et al. 1953). May enter brackish water (Scott and Crossman 1973), but seem to be limited by salinities of 1.7 ppt; occasionally collected at salinities of 11 ppt (Perry 1968; Ross 2001). Species prefers temperature range of 28-30 degrees C (Cheetham et al. 1976). However, fish can survive higher temperatures; upper lethal temperature for species ranges from 36.6-37.8 degrees C for acclimation temperatures of 26-34 degrees C (Allen and Strawn 1968). Becker (1983) notes that channel catfish are found in clear, rocky, well-oxygenated streams, as well as slow-moving, silty streams; often found downstream from power dams where water is fairly rapid. Further, in streams, young fish inhabitat slow riffles and turbulent areas near sand bars; adults are found under big rocks in deep pools or under log jams, during the day, entering shallow water at night. In Wisconsin, channel catfish collected in turbid water over substrates (decreasing order of frequency) of mud, sand, clay, gravel, silt, rubble, and boulders. Young fish form daytime aggregations near the bottom during their first 4-10 months of life; aggregations disperse nightly with fish moving along the bottom (Brown et al.1970).



Spawning season: Late spring and early summer (Ross 2001) occurs when the water warms to approximately 16-24 C (Appelget and Smith 1950; Crawford 1957; Jearld and Brown 1971).


Spawning location: Male selects a suitable site, usually a log or under rocks, sometimes female participates in site preparation (Clemens and Sneed 1957).


Reproductive strategy: Guarders; nest spawners; speleophils - hole nesters (Simon 1999). In streams, male locates suitable dark cavity or crevice under a ledge where rock strata outcrop in the channel, or beneath roots of a tree undercut by the current. In a lake or reservoir, under highly turbid conditions, nests may be made directly on the bottom in the mud. Normal development of young does not require a current or rocky substrate for spawning. Nail kegs, earthenware crocks, or milk cans are provided for fish spawning in ponds or hatcheries (Becker 1983). According to Marzolf (1957), 2-3 “telescoped” kegs provide a hollow area for spawning fish; the spawn is usually deposited in the middle keg. Prior to spawning, nest site is cleaned by the male, who vigorously fans with his fins and body ( at times the female may participate in nest preparation; Clemens and Sneed 1957); the male then awaits a female that is ready to deposit her eggs (Davis 1959). Males may coat inside of nest area with mucus, creating a waxy appearance. Spawning occurs during the day, and the spawning female leaves or is chased away from nest by the male afterward. Male then guards nest and fans nest with fins (Brown 1942; Clemens and Sneed 1957). In Missouri ponds, fry normally remain in nest about 7 days, and are defended by the male (Marzolf 1957).


Fecundity: Spawning period from 4 – 6 hours; 150 eggs laid about 9 times per hour, for a total of 8,000 eggs. Females weighing 0.45 – 1.81 kg produced about 8,800 eggs per kilogram of body weight. Females usually void all eggs when they spawn (Clemmens and Sneed 1957). Large, yellowish eggs are 3.5-4.0 mm in diameter (Menzel 1945). Fertilized eggs hatch in 6 days at 25.0 degrees C and in 10 days at 15.6 degrees C (Brown 1942; Clemens and Sneed 1957). In Texas ponds, Toole (1951) reported eggs hatching in 5-10 days. Incubation of eggs at temperatures above 36 degrees C frequently results in deformed vertebrae (Allen and Strawn 1968).


Age/Size at maturation: In Texas ponds, catfish reported to mature 18 months after hatching (Carlander 1969). In Louisiana coastal areas, (with salinities up to 3.5 ppt) individuals mature by 2nd or 3rd year, at 330 – 339 mm TL for males and 350 – 359 mm TL for females (Perry and Carver 1973). Normally, fish are not mature until attaining a total length of 305 mm (Appelget and Smith 1950); as a result of wide variation in growth rates, fish may mature in 2-5 years or longer in more northern areas (DeRoth 1965).


Migration: Movement of reservoir populations increases during or immediately following periods of increased river flow. Reservoir and river populations of channel catfish show a general trend for upstream migration in the spring, followed by downstream movement in the fall (Duncan and Myers 1978; Dames et al. 1989). Dames et al. (1989) reported river populations showing greater movement in spring than in other seasons. Adults are capable of moving considerable distances in streams, though usually not more than 161 km (Funk 1955; Welker 1967); Dames et al. (1989) reported an individual in the Missouri River, Missouri, traveling 469 km upstream in a 72 day period (averaging 6.5 km/day); an individual in the St. Johns River, Florida, traveled 108 km upstream in 22 days (4.9 km/day; Hale et al. 1986).


Longevity: Normally live at least 6-10 years, though longer life spans have been reported (Sneed 1951; Conder and Hoffarth 1965; Jearld and Brown 1971); in Colorado, an introduced population included fish living 22 years (Tyus and Nikirk 1990); 40-year-old fish recorded in Canada (Carlander 1969).


Food habits: First level trophic classification: invertivore/carnivore; second level trophic classification: benthic/whole body (Goldstein and Simon 1999); consuming a variety of items including organic detritus, aquatic insect larvae and pupae, zooplankton and fishes. Main invertebrate prey items include midge larvae (chironomids), black fly larvae (simuliids), caddisflies, shrimp (astacids), and isopods. Fishes in diet includevarious minnows (Cyprinidae) and gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum; Bailey and Harrison 1945; Dendy 1946; Mathur 1971; Robinette and Knight 1981; Weisburg and Janicki 1990); may also eat plants including filamentous green algae; Menzel 1945). Feeding activity in larger rivers with turbid water is mainly focused toward chironomids, caddisfly larvae, and other organisms inhabiting the bottom; minimal relationship between composition of organisms drifting in water column and food habits (Weisburg and Janicki 1990). In reservoirs, zooplankton (especially Daphnia), detritus of fine sand and mud, and fishes compose mush greater portion of diet (Mathur 1971). Flooding of streams allow channel catfish to eat terrestrial prey including earthworms, crickets, centipedes, and even mice and rats, as they are able to move out onto the inundated floodplains (Robinette and Knight 1981). Carlander (1969) listed unusual items found in stomachs, such as a snake skin, an adult bobwhite, and hydroids. Species feeds most actively from sundown – midnight, at water temperatures between 10-34.4 degrees C (Bailey and Harrison 1945). Numerous taste buds are located on the barbles and other areas of the fish aiding in the detection of prey (Joyce and Chapman 1978). Larval fish (alevins) feed primarily on midge larvae and pupae (Chironomidae); most activity occurring a few hours after dusk or just before dawn. Alevins remain inactive, on or buried in the stream bottom, during the day. However, they are frequently found drifting in the water column at night, probably as a result of being displaced by currents as they are actively feeding along the bottom, rather than entering the water column purposefully (Armstrong and Brown 1983). Insects are primary food item of fish smaller than 102 mm TL (Bailey and Harrison 1945). While fish larger than 102 m TL continue to consume aquatic insects, they may begin to ingest large species of mayflies and caddidflies rather than small midges. Large fish show a greater tendency to take terrestrial insects, as well (Bailey and Harrison 1945). In Maryland, caddisfly larvae were an important food item of a wide size range of fish in large-river environment populations, composing 40-60% of the biomass of diet; midge larvae was a main food item (25-55% of biomass), and increased in importance in fish over 200 mm TL (Weisburg and Janicki 1990). According to Darnell (1958, 1961), in coastal areas, small bottom-inhabiting crustaceans (amphipods, isopods, xanthid crabs), midge larvae and pupae, and organic detritus were diet items of fish 76 – 119 mm SL. Larger fish included these same items, in addition to more fishes and larger crustaceans. Bailey and Harrison (1945) and Busbee (1968) reported fish larger than about 279 – 381 mm TL consuming fishes.


Growth: Growth extremely variable. Respective ranges of total lengths expected through the first 8 years of life in the Tennessee area were reported by Carlander (1969): 86 – 163, 170 – 239, 206 – 290, 241 – 333, 269 – 366, 295 - 404, 325 – 427, and 462 – 495 mm. Variable growth of populations in northern Mississippi reservoirs reported: averages of 72 – 102 mm TL after one year, 132 – 189 mm, 203 – 272 mm, 266 – 341 mm, 304 – 370 mm, 353 mm, and 425 mm for years 2-7, respectively (Schultz 1967). Appelget and Smith (1950) calculated total lengths from vertebrae at the end of each year of life from fish collected in a pool of the Mississippi River, in Lansing, Iowa: 1 – 75 mm; 2 – 161 mm; 3 – 231 mm; 4 – 299 mm; 5 – 361 mm; 6 – 423 mm; 7 – 488 mm; 8 – 536 mm; 9 – 620 mm; 10 – 676 mm; 11 – 658 mm; and 12 – 709 mm. Optimal temperature range for growth is apparently 28-30 degrees C (Cheetham et al. 1976).


Phylogeny and morphologically similar fishes

Ictalurus puntatus most closely resembles the headwater catfish (I. lupus), but the former is distinguishes by usually ≥25 anal fin rays (usually <25 for I. lupus) and caudal fin in younger specimens deeply forked with pointed lobes. Ictalurus punctatus can be distinguished from the blue catfish (I. furcatus) by the rounded anal fin (margin of anal fin almost straight in I. furcatus; Sublette et al. 1990). Ictalurus punctatus can be readily hybridized with the blue catfish (I. furcatus), and hybrids have a higher rate of growth than either parent (Stickney 1986).


Host Records

Cestoda (4); Trematoda (8); Nemata (6); Copepoda (4; Mayberry et al. 2000).


Commercial or Environmental Importance

Ictalurus puntatus is the most widely cultivated warm water species in North America (Stickney 1986).



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