Named for their resemblance to the cat due to their barbels which resemble whiskers, catfish are a unique and diverse group of fish, with approximately three thousand species known to date. The large number of species leads to a wide range of differences in habitat, behavior, and diet.
So, are catfish bottom feeders? Yes, some species of catfish are bottom feeders. While each species is unique, catfish tend to be similar in where they dwell and feed in the water and many consider them to be bottom feeders.
Let’s look at the differences between top and bottom feeders, what makes the catfish primarily a bottom feeder, and whether or not bottom feeders are safe and healthy to eat.
Are All Catfish Bottom Feeders?
No, not all catfish are bottom feeders.
There are some species of catfish that are exclusively bottom feeders, however there are other types such as channel catfish, blue catfish, and flathead catfish, that will feed at the bottom, middle, and surface of a body of water, depending on various environmental factors as well as food availability.
What are Bottom and Top Feeders?
As you might expect, a bottom feeder fish feeds at the bottom of a body of water. Bottom feeders are also known as benthivores, meaning they eat benthos, which is flora or fauna (plants or animals) found near the bottom, or in the bottom sediments of a sea, lake, or other body of water.
In the case of catfish, this body of water is freshwater since the majority of catfish live in freshwater environments. Many carnivorous bottom dwellers will bury themselves in the mud to hide before they capture their prey.
The mouth of a bottom feeder fish is generally located on the lower side of the fish’s body and is sometimes referred to as a suckermouth due to it’s round, suction cup appearance. Bottom feeders also tend to be negatively buoyant which means they naturally sink rather than float, making their life at the deepest part of the water easy to maintain.
Opposite the bottom feeders, are other fish who feed at the surface of the water. These top feeders often have upturned mouths to help them access food at the surface of the water. There are also fish that dwell in the middle, and may go up to the surface or down to the bottom for feeding based on various environmental factors and where their food can be found.
Now that you’re familiar with the various terms that describe the water level in which aquatic animals feed at, and some of the main characteristics of the top and bottom feeder groups, let’s get back to the catfish.
Why Do Catfish Often Dwell at the Bottom?
Catfish tend to stay toward the bottom of the water during the day and often bury themselves in the mud on hot days to help them stay cool, especially if they are living in a body of water shallow enough to feel the sun’s warmth throughout the day.
In colder weather, they also tend to stay near the bottom as they prefer the deeper water to the icy surface.
While they often dwell at the bottom due to these environmental factors, catfish will go to any surface level necessary when they are hungry and need to find food.
They will eat at the bottom if there is food available, but will leave the comfort that the bottom often offers them if they are in need of a meal.
What Do Catfish Eat?
Let’s look at three different types of catfish, where they live, what they eat, and how this impacts their dwelling behavior. Catfish eat a variety of different foods, depending on the species and the availability of food in the location in which they live.
- Flathead catfish, which are primarily found in lakes, rivers, and streams, and prefer muddier and cloudier water and slow currents, eat mostly fish, insects, and crustaceans. The flathead is a bottom dweller and the primary components of its diet can be found at the bottom of the water, making it easy for them to remain there and successfully find food. While they are not exclusively bottom feeders, they will likely remain at the bottom as long as their environment and food sources allow. When needed, they will likely move closer to the surface to find insects to eat when other food sources are less available.
- Channel catfish eat a much larger variety of food such as fish, snails, clams, insects, crustaceans, small mammals or birds, as well as vegetation. They live in lakes as well as large rivers and streams and prefer gravel, sand, or stone bottoms over the mud. The clearer water makes it easier to see their prey, which they will go to all levels of the water to find. Being that small mammals and birds are part of their diet, they are more likely than some other types of catfish to feed at the surface of the water, snatching an animal as it dips its head into the water to get a drink or search for fish to eat.
- Blue catfish eat fish and large invertebrates and are found primarily in rivers, and like the Channel catfish, prefer water with gravel or rock bottoms. They prefer clear, quickly moving water, over the murky slow moving water that the Flatheads enjoy, and because they are often found in quickly moving water, their food may also move quickly, causing them to have to search for food at all levels of the water.
As you can see, while catfish in general may prefer to stay at the bottom due to temperature or sun exposure, food availability and the location of the food within the water will cause a catfish to leave the comfort of the bottom to go to any water level to reach it.
Are Bottom Dwellers Safe to Eat?
You’re likely wondering if bottom dwellers, and more specifically bottom dwelling catfish are safe to eat.
Bottom dwelling fish can get a bad reputation when it comes to viewing them as food, as people often see them as slow moving creatures, lurking in the murky waters, eating the leftovers that fall to the bottom of the water.
In an aquarium setting, bottom feeders are seen as the cleaners of the fish tank and are used to pick up food missed by other fish that would otherwise sit at the bottom collecting algae.
Bottom dwellers are used like garbage disposals that keep the tank clean and balance the ecosystem. Understandably, this makes bottom dwelling fish sound quite unappetizing when thinking about them in the context of dinner.
Catfish can also look particularly unappealing due to the unique physical characteristics that differentiate them from other fish – mainly their cat-like whiskers, called barbels, and their smooth leathery skin due to lack of scales.
But let’s think about what we now know about the catfish and their behavior and diet. While catfish do often dwell at the bottom of the water, we’ve seen that their diets consist of much more than the ‘leftovers’ falling to the bottom of the water, and that they will go out and actively search for prey when needed.
Regardless of how and where they find their food, bottom dwellers can be perfectly safe to eat. Some common bottom feeder fish that you may find on the menu at your favorite restaurant are cod, halibut, shrimp, lobster scallops, bass, and sole.
Tilapia is often considered a bottom feeder as well, although some consider it to be more of a middle feeder, and catfish, which you now know generally dwell at the bottom but will look for food in other areas. Many of these commonly eaten fish actually thrive on ‘leftovers’ and get their nutrients from that undesirable algae at the bottom of your fish tank.
Health Benefits of Eating Catfish
Catfish are high in protein and low in fat, making them a lean protein which is a good source of energy and great for muscle growth. They also contain high amounts of vitamin B12 which is known to protect against heart disease, as well as omega-3 fatty acids which play a significant role in both brain and heart health. While other fish also contain high amounts of protein, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids, catfish rank among the highest in all three areas.
Catfish and Other Bottom Feeders – Does it Matter When it Comes to Your Food?
Catfish primarily dwell at the bottom, and while some are exclusively bottom feeders, many will go to all levels to find food. When considering if a bottom feeder is good to eat or not, there may be other factors you should consider.
The most important thing to consider when determining whether or not a fish may be safe to eat or not, is not necessarily the diet of that particular fish based on it’s preferred level within the water, but the environment in which that fish was living.
Was that fish eating ‘leftovers’ in a clean environment?
Or was that fish getting first dibs in a polluted river?
Catfish and other bottom feeders can make for a healthy meal as long as they are sourced from a clean environment.