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Well, the 2016 election is finally over. And I sort of got my wish–all three branches of government are fully united and deadlock is over. Plus we have our own Kim Jong-un now, a glorious orange child-monarch of absolute privilege who is beholden to no one and obeys no rules. Perhaps we can use this loose cannon to deal with North Korea once and for all, before they get long-range nuclear missiles or trade warfare leaves China with nothing to lose. Oh! and maybe Newt Gingrich will finally get his moon base. Anyway, we can talk about affairs of the world again in 2020 (if any of us are alive)…or maybe in 2018 if demographics moves faster than the statisticians say.
But the end of the never-ending election brings up one big problem: what is anyone going to write about now?
Fortunately Ferrebeekeeper has the answer the nation craves: Ancistrus–the endearing bushynose catfish! These armored catfish from South America (and Panama) have faces so ridiculous and ugly that they are actually adorable. Ancistrus catfish are part of the Loricariidae: armored suckermouth catfish which live on plant material. Many of the 70 species of Ancistrus catfish live in the Amazon Basin, but some live in other South America river systems–or up in Panama. Females have a few short bristles poking out from around their mouths, but males have a magnificent beard of tendrils running from their midface.
Male Ancistrus catfish are dutiful parents. They hide in underwater dens and guard clutches of eggs which the females lay upside down sticking to the roof. When the fry hatch, the father guards them when they are little and vulnerable. Female catfish like dutiful fathers, and they are amorously receptive to males who have clutches of young (since successful males tend to have multiple batches of eggs). It has been speculated that the tendrils actually evolved to help males look like they have young in low-light dating situations. Undoubtedly these tendrils also help the catfish feel and taste their way around in low light situations (although the fish, like all catfish, are blessed with an astonishing array of senses).
Three species of Ancistrus are, in fact, true troglobites: they dwell in underwater caves and have lost most of their pigmentation (and their eyes are becoming less acute and withering away). The other species of Ancistrus are pretty stylishly colored too: they tend to be covered with yellow or white spots. I think we can finally agree that this is a face we can all get behind!
The Amazon is the planet’s largest river. The great waterway is very much in the news this week as the world turns its eyes to Brazil to watch the Olympics. My whole life I have wanted to visit the upstream backwaters of the Amazon and view its ecological treasures before it is all converted into strip malls and low-cost parking. Unfortunately, the developers are doing a lot better in this life than I, so I am not sure that will ever happen. Thus, instead of going to Brazil in the real world, we will go there via blog! No need for visas (I hear that Brazil doesn’t really want American visitors anyway). We can check out the amazing fish, snakes, mammals, and, um, emperors of Brazil without ever leaving the internet.
Speaking of fish, the Amazon is the home of the fearsome pirarara! No freshwater fish is more storied or more…wait “pirarara”? What the heck is that?\
The Pirarara is actually a giant extremely colorful catfish which grows to immense size (You knew I couldn’t get through these Olympics without writing about some of the magnificent siluriformes from the place with the greatest diversity of catfish….a place where catfish are actually found beneath the water table).
The pirarara (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus) aka “the redtail catfish” is the only living representative of the genus Phractocephalus. These catfish are omnivores which grow to 1.8 meters (six feet) in length and weigh up to 80 kg (180 lb). I wonder if they wear the same sized suits as me? I am being silly, of course: these catfish do not wear suits since nobody has found a pattern which does not clash with their brown backs, mustard yellow sides, and white stomach….and their bright ketchup-red tails. The pirarara should really be called the condiment catfish. The fish are popular in large aquariums, although they are so voracious that they can injure themselves by swallowing aquarium furniture and vomiting it back up.
Redtail catfish may be the last living members of the Phractocephalus genus, but there were once many species…some of which date back to the upper Miocene (13.5 million years ago). They lived throughout what is now Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, and Ecuador, in the great series of lakes and wetlands which made up the long-vanished Pebas mega-wetland. The pirarara has a certain prehistoric look to it. Can you imagine the crazy color combinations which its vanished realtives must have had as they sw3am among the super crocodiles and crazy alligators of the Pebas?
It has been far too long since we dropped in on our friends the Siluriformes–the order of catfish (this makes them sound like a powerful secret society…but the catfish kind of are a powerful secret society). Today Ferrebeekeeper features an especially magnificent and crazy-looking catfish, Cnidoglanis macrocephalus, AKA “the Cobbler.” Cnidoglanis macrocephalus is the only species within its genus. It belongs to the Plotosidae family of catfish which includes ocean-going and saltwater catfish like the adorable coral reef catfish (these stripy little guys live like clownfishes, surgeonfish, and triggerfish within the tumultuous and colorful ecosystems of coral reefs). The Cobbler does live in salt water, but they do not venture out to the coral reef. Instead they live in brackish areas at the mouths of rivers and streams. The flamboyant fish—which have whiskery catfish heads annealed to eel-like tails can grow up to 90 centimetres (36 in) in length and weigh 2.5 kilograms (5.5 lbs).
Cnidoglanis macrocephalus tends to spend the day hiding in holes. Then at night the catfish comes out along the coastlines to feed on mollusks, worms, crustaceans, algae, and organic debris (the darkness helps them hide from predators and poses little challenge to the superb catfish senses). The fish can live up to 13 years, although they are preyed on by cormorants and pelicans. To protect themselves cobbler catfish have razor-sharp venomous spines in their dorsal and pectoral fins.
It’s a bit past the holidays, but I wanted to share the Christmas present I received. A plush catfish! Look at how endearing it is. There are too few catfish toys. This is a blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus), the largest species of north American catfish, which reached sizes of up to 165 cm (65 in) can weigh more than 68 kg (150 lb). The blue catfish does not just make a captivating plush toy, its success in the competitive real world also illustrates why the siluriformes are such formidable lifeforms.
Although blue catfish can eat almost anything, they are highly competent and aggressive predators (look at its predatory lines). They are capable of living in fresh fast water or in torpid brackish water and they possess all the myriad astonishing senses of the catfish in order to master their river home. This is a problem in the real world. The fish was originally native to the Mississippi river and most of its tributaries, but, aided by the fell hand of man, the blue catfish was introduced into the rivers and estuaries of Virginia where it has swiftly displaced native life. Because of its ability to survive brackish water, the mighty catfish of the Mississippi has been taking over parts of the Chesapeake Bay. Hopefully it wasn’t a mistake to bring one into the house.
Here is a stamp which combines two of my fascinations—catfish and Namibia. Of course Namibia is a vast and profoundly arid desert—literally a sea of sand—so perhaps you are wondering how a catfish made it onto their postage. Well the African sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) has a habit of getting everywhere. It lives throughout most of Africa and the Middle East and (though ill-conceived aquaculture) has established colonies in Vietnam, India, Brazil, and Indonesia. The catfish is an air breather. It can sip pure air without the use of its gills, so it can survive in puddles, mud wallows, and even in filthy anaerobic water. Some of them have moved into the sewers of big cities. Speaking of big it is arguably Africa’s largest catfish with an average adult length of 1–1.5 m (3 ft 3 inches –4 ft 11 inches). Even in a dry land like Namibia this tough persistent catfish manages to find watercourses of one sort or another. Like its close cousin, the walking catfish of Asia, the African sharptooth catfish is a remarkable creature.
The Amazon River is renowned for having the greatest diversity of catfish of any river—oh, and it is also the largest river in the world too, I guess. The river drains half of South America and its branches flows through many many different sorts of regions. Near Tena in Ecuador, the river’s tributaries flow through a karst landscape of sunken limestone caves, streams and springs. There, deep beneath the rainforest, scientists have discovered a catfish with a remarkable ability to climb walls—or perhaps I should say they have rediscovered a previously known fish and found out it has unexpected talents.
A team of naturalists led by Geoff Hoese found the catfish in a subterranean waterway jauntily climbing up a sheer 3 meter (10 foot) stone wall with a thin rivulet running down it. Here is a link to a National Geographic article about the catfish—you can go there and watch a video of the catfish shimmying up and down water-slicked rocks. The scientists believe the fish is Chaetostoma microps, a member of the suckermouth armored catfish family (Loricariidae), a group of animals which Ferrebeekeeper has enthused about in past posts (although the fish’s identity remains unclear—since the team had no permit for taking specimens and left the creature unmolested still climbing its underground walls).
Chaetostoma microps is not notably specialized for cave life—it still has pigment and eyes, and lacks the marked asceticism of other true underdwellers like the pink catfish Phreatobius cisternarum (which lives beneath the water table!) Chaetostoma microps feeds on algae—which is notably lacking from underground caves. So what exactly is the fish doing down there? And how/why did it evolve its remarkable ability to climb rocks without much water? The answers are unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume that a fish from the vertiginous yet cave-studded foothills of the Andes would need the ability to climb in order to maximize its habitat (and to prevent being sucked into an inescapable underground grotto). Maybe Chaetostoma microps is really a mountaineer catfish. Instead of leaping like salmon, it deals with its rocky treacherous home by suction, barbels, and indomitable spirit!
I had lots of favorite toys as a child—the toy I loved most changed as I changed ages (a truth which continues to be valid). However, like most boys of my demographic, one of my all-time favorite toy properties was the Star Wars action figure line by Kenner. This was a line of licensed toys based on the blockbuster space opera films. The Kenner action figures changed all the parameters of toy manufacturing & sales and made a bajillion dollars…but I don’t have to tell you about Star Wars action figures; unless you are some bizarre eremite or a post-human reading this in the distant future, you already know all about them. Anyway I uncritically loved all the figures I had–except for three problem figures: R2D2 had a white marble stuck up inside of him which made it impossible to deploy his third leg (I had the droid shop—and the third leg! but to no avail). Han Solo’s head broke off and was lost: he was in the Hoth Anorak, so afterwards he just looked like a mountaineer who had slipped, but I still knew it was Han, so it was pretty devastating. And, perhaps worst of all, somebody chewed up Greedo’s head.
Now R2D2 was not a problem—you could still play with him. Han Solo’s terminal accident came as I was outgrowing the figures. But, throughout my childhood, Greedo’s disfigurement always bothered me. Plus who chewed up his head? Was it the dog? Was it my little sister? Was it me? He had come into my hands when I was at such a tender age, that the secret of his scars was lost. I could make it work—Greedo’s fate in the movies was pretty inglorious. When you were playing, it was easy to make believe he had been savaged by some horrible space monster. Yet he was one of the most alien of the alien characters and that was diminished. Plus his big soulful empty eyes—his best feature!–were ruined.
That is a pretty long introduction to today’s post which–as you no doubt anticipated—is about catfish! Johnathan Armbruster is an ichthyologist who curates the fish collection for Auburn University Museum of Natural History. Recently, as he was going through old specimens, he found an unknown catfish collected from the Amazon in 1998. Using his special ichthyology powers, Armbruster determined this was an entirely new species of armored suckermouth catfish. Destiny was in his hands. He had to name the new catfish. I should mention that the defining features of this new armored catfish were its big soulful empty eyes (as well as some head appendages and a ribbed body).
Armbruster reached back to his own childhood memories and named the fish Peckoltia greedoi, in honor of the incompetent Rodian bounty hunter (well also in honor of Gustavo Peckolt, a member of the Natural History Commission—but Armbruster didn’t get to choose the genus name). Looking at the fish, the movie character, and the action figure, I become ever more convinced the little catfish is actually named after the toy. I wonder if Armbruster’s Greedo action figure was chewed up too.
Last week’s crazy catfish car was a big hit. Therefore I embarked on a search for an even crazier item…a catfish crown! Alas, I foolishly wasted my blog researching time seeking a mad object which does not seem to exist (or at least remains unknown to the internet). Although I never discovered a jeweled catfish headdress, I did succeed in finding a surprising number of endearing catfish pendants, charms, and medallions. Thus, here is the resultant small gallery of catfish jewelry.
I wish I had more to say about these lovely little objects. It seems like the catfish was sometimes a good luck symbol in ancient cultures (representing fertility, mutability,& plenty), and these little amulets and earrings make me think that the same continues to hold true even in our digital world. But, without knowing the jewelers’ intent, I can only present an interesting image gallery. It’s still pretty exciting though!
What is the most beautiful shape? Obviously a catfish shape, right? Unfortunately, designers have been slow to realize this and they have so far failed to incorporate the beauty of catfish into home, work, and public contexts. Fortunately, however, this is all beginning to change. Bauer Ltd., a firm which specializes in customizing automobiles has finally realized that most Americans would prefer to drive around in a sleek and fancy catfish. They offer a service through which the discerning motorist can transform his boring Mazda Miata into a thrilling siluriform shape.
According to auto-industry blogs, the designer of the Bauer Catfish actually looked at a catfish to craft the design. It is certainly a sleek and magnificent-looking vehicle! I particularly like how the eyes/headlights look, and I love the diagonal stripes on the sides. I looked at the Bauer website to try to find out some details to share with you about the custom cars, but sadly the technical details of the conversion quickly baffled me (it doesn’t help that I have been a pedestrian for so many years). It seems you can customize the cars with all sorts of souped-up racing engines, but unfortunately I could not find any way to install sensitive whiskers or tastebuds on the vehicle.
Of the top ten posts of all time, number five is my personal favorite. As you might imagine, it deals with catfish—those bewhiskered masters of freshwater survival. Catfish live on all continents (other than Antarctica—where they once lived) and they thrive in virtually every freshwater habitat worldwide. The siluriformes have even left freshwater and begun to reconquer the ancient oceans from whence all chordates originally sprang. They are a phenomenally successful family—one of life’s greatest success stories. When Earth life finally leaves home and blasts off into the greater firmament, I am sure catfish will find a way to tag along in our fresh water supply (assuming we can ever look up from our stupid I-phones and celebrity folderol for ten minutes to make such a thing happen).
Ferrebeekeeper has featured all sorts of catfish posts: catfish in art, the politics of farm-raised catfish, colorful catfish, venomous coral reef catfish, even terrifying underworld gods that are catfish! There are upside-down catfish, and catfish which care, and even wild catfish living in Brooklyn (both at the beach and at the reservoir). Tune in later this autumn when we will go all celebrity chef and cook a delicious catfish! I guess what I am saying is that I really like catfish! I admire their astonishing versatility. The secret to their success is straightforward but hardly simple—they have a vast array of astonishing sense organs which allow them to thrive in environments where other fish are lost. Even if their habitat is dark, turbid, or chaotic—the numerous senses of the catfish (some of which are not possessed by humans) allow it to evade predators, find food, and carry on a social life which is often surprisingly elaborate. You can read all about these astonishing senses in Ferrebeekeeper’s fifth top post of all time “Sensitive Siluriformes: How Catfish Perceive the World.”
After you are done reading (or re-reading) the original post, I hope you will pause to reflect on how astonishingly beautiful and sophisticated life is. Most people I talk to initially dismiss catfish as lowly bottom-feeders (or possibly talk about them as delicious sandwiches), but they are magnificent organisms which live everywhere based on senses we are just beginning to understand. They are also related to us: distant cousins who stayed closer to the traditional ways of our great, great, ever-so-great grandparents the ancient lobe-finned fishes of the Silurian. But despite their adherence to a traditional aquatic lifestyle the catfish are hardly unsophisticated cousins!