Catfishes and Bullheads (Ictaluridae)

Catfishes and bullheads silhouette.

The family Ictaluridae is sometimes referred to as the “North American” catfishes because their native range is limited to this continent. North American catfish species are generally similar in form. They all have a flattened head and wide mouth. They have eight barbels around the mouth: two off the snout, two off the corners of the mouth, and four under the chin. These long barbels give the impression of whiskers, hence the name “catfishes.” There are single, stout spines at the origin of the dorsal and pectoral fins. They possess a single dorsal fin, abdominal pelvic fins and an adipose fin. They have no scales.

Five species of catfishes, only one native, have been reported from fresh waters of Connecticut. Catfish are primarily nocturnal feeders, using their highly sensitive barbels to feel and taste the environment. All Connecticut catfishes possess venom glands at the base of the dorsal and pectoral spines that can cause pain ranging from mild irritation to something similar to a bee sting.

Click on the species' names below to learn more.

Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) - Introduced

47 cm channel catfish.


White Catfish (Ameiurus catus) - Introduced

52 cm white catfish.


Brown Bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus) - Native

34 cm brown bullhead.


Yellow Bullhead (Ameiurus natalis) - Introduced

Yellow bullhead top and bottom view.


Black Bullhead (Ameiurus melas) - Introduced

Black bullhead.


Another catfish species, the tadpole madtom (Noturus gyrinus) has not been reported in Connecticut, but is known to occur in the French River just across the border in Massachusetts. Madtoms are small (typically less than 4 inches), dark-colored catfish that superficially resemble tadpoles. Their adipose fin is attached to the tail fin. Tadpole madtoms prefer slow-moving waters and vegetated areas of ponds or streams with rocky to mud bottoms. Because they are small, secretive fish, it is possible that they could exist somewhere unnoticed in Connecticut.

All of the Connecticut catfish species are easy to keep in home aquariums. They will gluttonously devour almost any dried or live food and are tolerant of poor water conditions. Young catfish are passive and are generally oblivious of their tank mates. However, they grow quickly, especially if overfed. Large catfish may set up a territory (for example, behind a certain rock) and aggressively chase other fish away. Large catfish are also prone to rearranging objects in the aquarium.


Text and images adapted from Jacobs, R. P., O'Donnell, E. B., and Connecticut DEEP. (2009). A Pictorial Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Connecticut. Hartford, CT. Available for purchase at the DEEP Store.