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The Electric Catfish – A Unique Species for the Serious Catfish Fancier

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  It takes some doing to stand out among the catfishes, a group that contains some of the most bizarre creatures on earth.  Yet the Electric Catfish (Malapterurus electricus) does this quite admirably.  Indeed, this species is so unique that it and the small mouth electric catfish (M. macrostoma) are alone classified in the family Malapteruridae.

Characteristics and Cautions

The Electric Catfish has a number of qualities that would seem to mitigate against its popularity, but catfish enthusiasts, myself included, seem drawn to “unlovable” beasts.  It is no beauty, and is impossible to house with any species other than its own – tank mates that are not shocked to death are eaten!  Fortunately, it is Electric Catfishimmune to its own unique defense system.

In all seriousness, however, this fish is not for beginners.  It may reach 3 feet in length, and when disturbed emits electrical charges that are, at 400 volts, strong enough to stun adults (the strength of its charges increases with size, but even a 3 inch specimen can make itself felt).  Obviously, it is imperative that children and mentally challenged persons be kept away from electric catfishes.

Natural History

The Electric Catfish inhabits slower-moving portions of the Nile, Niger and other river systems in Central and West Africa.  The small mouth Electric Catfish is confined to the Congo River Basin and rarely appears in the pet trade. 

This species captures its prey, mainly other fishes, by releasing short bursts of electricity.  Electrical impulses are also used for defense, but do not assist in navigation (as is the case for the knife fishes). A unique pectoral muscle that surrounds most of the body generates the electrical discharges.

Pairs form during the breeding season, and the eggs are laid in a self dug or confiscated hole below a sunken log or rock. Little else is known of its reproductive behavior.

Captive Care

Despite, or perhaps because of, their formidable defenses, electric catfishes make most responsive pets. Owners invariably describe them as alert and quick to respond to one’s presence (in such cases, feed but don’t “pet” them!).  They soon abandon their nocturnal ways where food is involved.

Plan for a large, well-covered tank, as these stout fishes may reach 35 inches in length.  They seem to be fish specialists, but will also take all manner of other meaty foods, carnivore pellets, prawn, earthworms, insects, crayfishes and just about any other small animal.  Long term captives rarely discharge electricity during routine tank maintenance, but they should none-the-less be treated with respect and caution.

Captives do best under low light and in moderately soft water at 76-78 F and 6.5-7.5 in pH.  A suitably powerful filtration system is essential, as are regular water changes.  Electric catfishes prefer sluggish waters in the wild, and do not abide strong currents in captivity.  Albinos are sometimes available.

Research Potential

The Electric Catfish is yet another relatively common, hardy fish about which we know very little.  Documenting their breeding behavior would be a most interesting and useful endeavor…please consider it if your resources allow.

A New Exhibit

I recently obtained a nice group of Electric Catfishes and helped set up an exhibit for them in the new African Underwater Adventure display at the Maritime Aquariumin Norwalk, Ct.  Please visit if you have a chance.

Further Reading

You can read more about the Electric Catfish at Fishbase.


Please write in with your questions and comments. 

Thanks, until next time,

 Frank Indiviglio