why do catfish have whiskers

Why do Catfish Have “Whiskers”?

We have all heard of the infamous Catfish and its “stinging whiskers”. In fact, if you’re big into fishing for catfish you’ve probably been told to avoid touching the whiskers on a catfish. Catfish typically have around four to eight “whiskers” around the upper and lower sections of their jaw. Catfish are among around ten species of fish to have these “whiskers”. We know whiskers on cats are for balance, but what purpose do they hold for fish?

So, why do catfish have whiskers? Well, catfish don’t have “whiskers”,  exactly. The long, thin tendrils we often mistake for whiskers are actually called Barbels. The purpose of barbels is to help fish taste and smell what is around them. This is extremely important for catfish.

There are many misconceptions about catfish and their barbels. This article will dive into exactly what barbels are and what they do for catfish, if barbels and catfish are dangerous, more about catfish and where they got their name, as well as other species who have barbels.

What are Catfish “Whiskers”?

We have determined the true term for catfish whiskers, and they are called barbels. Barbels are long, thin, sensory organs made of skin that protrude from the mouth of a fish.

what are catfish whiskers

These whisker-like external organs are full of tiny taste buds and olfactory sensors. In every species, barbels help fish taste and smell in their surroundings. Barbels, the organs, are not to be confused with barbels, the breed of fish. The breed of fish, coincidentally do not have barbel organs themselves. But what do barbel organs do for catfish specifically?

How do Barbels Benefit Catfish Specifically?

Catfish typically live in very dark murky waters, such as lakes, rivers, and ponds. There are species of saltwater and brackish water catfish as well. Not only is their water typically muddy, but they are also nocturnal and hunt at night, making it essentially pitch black during hunting. This makes sight completely useless, leaving them to only have their barbels. They use their barbels to literally feel around the mud underwater, when they taste or smell something they like they bite at it.

Catfish and other bottom-dwelling fish typically eat small crustaceans, insect larvae, mollusks, mayflies, small fish, and sometimes algae. So the barbels help the fish taste and smell their prey, but do the barbels aid the fish in catching or hurting their prey?

Is it True that Barbels Sting?

It is not true that barbels can sting you or another fish. They are only pieces of skin, so if you touched them you would find they are actually quite soft and pliable. A fisherman described them as feeling like “a bendy long rubber eraser”. They have no poison or skin irritants in them, just sensory glands. Now with that being said, there are parts of a catfish to avoid touching. You want to avoid catfish fins and their spine. 

Catfish fins on their sides and spine can be sharp and accidentally poke you. Certain breeds of catfish (from over four thousand species) have poisonous cells around their spines that can feel like a sting. These cells are not lethal though and could be compared to a cat scratch or honey bee sting. The most important thing to remember with catfish stings is to keep the wound clean, and avoid infection. 

Dangerous Catfish

While your everyday catfish is not at all harmful, there are a couple of species to be cautious of. As I said before, some breeds of catfish produce poisonous cells around their dorsal and pectoral fins. These fins can lock up when the catfish are threatened, and jab a nearby predator or human. After this hit occurs, the flesh surrounding the venom gland cells is torn, releasing venom into the wound. While this causes stinging and inflammation, the worst case is infection. Catfish stings can majority of the time be treated with a over the counter ointment, such as Neosborn.

Gafftopsail catfish and Northern madtom catfish are two Northern American examples of poisonous catfish. Northern madtom are prodomitly found in Michigan, they have black stripes similar to a tabby cat. While Gafftopsail catfish are typically found in the Gulf of Mexico, they are known for their dorsel fin that flys off their back like a sail. Both of these species of catfish contain the poisonous cells on their spines. Keep in mind, only around a thousand species of catfish out of four thousand species are poisonous. So, your typical catfish in your neighborhood pond is more than likely harmless.

More About Catfish

Catfish are ray-finned, scaleless, bottom-feeding fish. There are many species of catfish scattered all across the world. The three primary breeds for Northern America are the blue catfish, channel catfish, and flathead catfish with at least 50 other breeds being present here.

Surprisingly, in Europe and North America, catfish are an invasive species toward smaller fish breeds. While being native to Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers, many states introduced catfish to their waters to create recreational fisheries. The breed spread like wildfire, and now states are struggling to keep their native fish alive.

Catfish can live anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five years and can get larger than twenty pounds. The largest catfish ever caught was in Thailand in 2005, it was nine feet long and 646 pounds. It is still to this day, the largest freshwater fish ever caught (that was recorded, at least).

Where Did Catfish Get their Name?

The catfish obviously partially got its name from its famous long barbels that resemble whiskers. It’s a fish, that looks similar to a cat. But, catfish are also known for being compared to cats for the sound they make when caught. Many compare the sound to a cat’s purr when it’s happy or comfortable. Unfortunately though, the catfish is likely not purring after being caught. It was a cute thought anyway!

Other Species Who Have Whiskers Barbels

Most fish who have barbels are also bottom-dwelling fish, just like the catfish. Barbels are most beneficial for fish who live in environments that restrict their sights, such as ponds, creeks, lakes, and rivers. Other species of fish that have barbels are; carp (koi), goatfish, hagfish, sturgeon, zebrafish, black dragonfish, and some species of sharks such as saw sharks and nurse sharks.

Why Catfish Have Whiskers: An Important Organ

So no, catfish don’t necessarily have “whiskers”, or at least the same hairy whiskers that dogs and cats have. The tentacles made of skin that we mistook for whiskers are actually called barbels. These barbels do not serve the same purpose as dog and cat whiskers do. While dogs and cats need whiskers for balance, fish and sharks use them for survival.

The big takeaways are:

  • Barbels are long, thin, whisker-like sensory organs that protrude from a fish’s mouth.
  • Catfish typically have four to eight barbels around the top, bottom and side sections of their jaws.
  • Barbels help fish taste and smell.
  • Most fish who have barbels are bottom feeders, who need them due to lack of sight.
  • Catfish barbels are soft and do not contain poison, making them harmless.
  • Beware of the back and fins on catfish if fishing or swimming, because some breeds contain poisonous cells that extrude from their spine.
  • There are many other species of fish and sharks that have barbels apart of their anatomy.