Real-Life Deadly Catfish

 

Catfish are widely thought of as harmless, slow-moving, bottom feeders, mostly notable for making a tasty dinner. However, there are an enormous variety of catfish across the globe, and some of them are  capable of turning the tables on any fisherman foolish enough to tangle with them.

Here are a few of the numerous killer catfish that lurk in our waters:

 

Creatures of Urban Legend

Perhaps you've heard stories of bathers in some exotic spot who decide to take a dip in a lake or river, only to have a parasite sneak inside their body through a most... intimate entrance. Most people in the English-speaking world chalk this up as a campfire tale designed to keep children from using the local pool as a latrine, but South Americans who live along the Amazon or Orinoco rivers know to take warnings of the Candirú seriously.

This member of the catfish family may seem tiny (approximately 4-6” in length) but not when you think of where it might possibly swim “upstream”. The Candirú is a blood parasite which enters the gills of larger fish, feeding on and living inside their larger cousins.  Anecdotal record of Candirú invading bathers dates back centuries, and written records from the 1940s describe a US Naval surgeon  removing Candirú from victims' bladders. However, any skepticism as to the veracity of these tales was wiped out in October of 1997, when a bather was attacked in the Amazon River.  A shocking detail is that the victim – Silvio Barbosa –  has stated in interviews that because warnings of the Candirú are well-known in his homeland of Brazil, he thought to be cautious and wade to shallower, thigh-deep water before urinating. This precaution proved futile, as an aggressive killer catfish actually jumped out of the river to attack him. Barbosa has said that he tried to grab hold of the Candirú, but it was slippery, and before he could pull it away it had gained access to his urethra. Once there, its spiny barbs prevented him from pulling it out. The victim was taken to Manaus – a four day journey – where urologist Anoar Samad used an endoscope to examine the fish, then carefully remove it. Luckily for Mr. Barbosa, the fish had relaxed its barbs when it died, allowing it to be pulled out without excessive tearing.

What distinguished this story from earlier Candirú tales is the level of documentation associated with it. Documentary film-makers and scientists such as Jeremy Wade have interviewed all those involved, and amazingly you can even view the video footage from Dr. Samad's endoscope on the internet, allowing anyone to see the entire removal process from the victim's urethra. Although it's difficult to tell from the video, the Candirú is surprisingly large, at 5 ½ inches long with a head nearly ½ inch wide. 

 

Modern Giants

Ancient tales of giant catfish are common in most cultures, as these ubiquitous creatures made an indelible impression on our ancestors. From Japanese “namazu” to current stories of “Volkswagen sized man-eaters” living at the bottom of dams, humans beliefs have time and again imbued the catfish with gargantuan size and supernatural powers. But when it comes to their size at least, reality is not too different from the legends.

Modern catfish are incredibly diverse, with species ranging from ½ inch to 9 feet  at adult length, and some topping the scales at over 600 pounds. The Wels catfish is the largest specimen known in the West, with some specimens growing in excess of 200 pounds, while in Asia the even larger Mekong catfish (the 600+ pounds mentioned above) is still found in the wild.

Although these giants are not known to pursue humans for food, they can clamp onto the legs of humans who come unknowingly close to the catfish's egg laid on a riverbed. Several of these defensive acts have been documented, and it's not too much of a stretch to image that a 200-pound fish could pull a human underwater with relative ease.  

 

Poisonous Barbs

While the Mekong Catfish may be a gentle giant, he has a smaller cousin who packs quite a wallop. The striped eel catfish inhabits many of the same waters but the danger they pose to humans is not one of  size, but of poison.

These foot-long catfish have spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins which can deliver a poison powerful enough to kill a full-grown human. Considering that as adolescents these killer catfish travel in schools of up to a hundred members, any swimmer unlucky enough to be caught in their midst faces an almost certain (and most certainly painful) death.

With such diversity among catfish, they really do stand out as one of the world's most fascinating  families of fish. But the next time you consider ordering catfish from a menu, you may want to look over your shoulder and make sure that your meal's relatives aren't closing in on you!