Catfish of the Month Right Arrow May 2000 • Article © Julian Dignall, uploaded May 01, 2000



Electric Catfish, Elmalle (Denmark), Zitterwels (Germany) - Malapterurus electricus   (Gmelin, 1789)

As with many things in life, the ugliest are often the most interesting. Africa's Electric Catfish is most certainly 'interesting'. As Dr. Burgess puts it in his Catfish Atlas, "one for the catfish connoisseur".

This month's species belongs to the electric catfish family Malapteruridae which contains but a single genus (Malapterurus) and only two species. The other species being the smaller dwarf electric catfish, M. macrostomus. Both are occasionally available with our larger variety also being (extremely rarely) available as an albino. To my mind this fishes only cosmetic saving grace is its interesting patterning and so the albino variety is truly one for the collectors (if it wasn't already). This sounds quite negative (no pun intended), but the electric catfish makes up for this with sheer personality. Given time, it will recognize and react to its owner and can be a rewarding pet. Aquarists who have made the effort to keep this fish properly always remark on it fondly in one way or another.

Obviously the fishes main talking point is its ability to generate electric shocks. These vary in strength depending on the length of the fish generating them. Voltages of 350V are possible for adult fish (around 1 meter long) these are emitted as a series of short burst (up to 500) in a period of 1 second which is the length of time for which the burst lasts. Such blasts are enough to temporarily stun even an adult human.

Younger, smaller fish (often the size seen for sale) are proportionally less able to produce such voltages, but even a 2" youngster can give you more than a tingle. What is interesting about this ability is that although deadly to other fishes, it has no effect on the catfish itself. Furthermore, the catfish is able to control when, and when not, to unleash it's secret weapon. Tame individuals will not normally react to the aquarists hand in the tank, but new acquisitions are much less tolerant and it's very much a case of buyer beware. This behavior shows that the fish can chose when to emit electric shocks and that it is not a involuntary reaction. Unlike knifefishes (which also have electrical capabilities), the electric catfish only uses it's party trick for defence or predation not for navigation.

So we have a fish that is bereft of any striking colouration, has looks more akin to a raw sausage with lips like a burst tyre and grows to a size only manageable in a large aquarium. It doesn't swim much and will kill (accidentally or otherwise) all tankmates unlucky enough to be placed in the same aquarium.

Sounds like a perfect catfish to me. Indeed, in this day when everything that begins with an "e-" is cool, the e-cat, after a few million years of evolution, is finally in the limelight


Copyright information for the images used in this article can be found on the species' full Cat-eLog page.

Jump to next section Cat-eLog Data Sheet
Scientific NameMalapterurus electricus  (Gmelin, 1789)
Common NamesElectric Catfish
Elmalle (Denmark), Zitterwels (Germany)
Type LocalityRosetta, branch of the Nile R.
Synonym(s)Silurus electricus
Pronunciationmah lah TERR oo russ - ell eck trick uss
EtymologyMalapterurus: From the Greek malakos, meaning soft, pteron, meaning fin and oura, meaning tail; presumably in reference to the adipose fin, which appears all the more prominent in the absence of the rayed dorsal fin. 
Jump to next section Species Information
Size 900mm or 35.4" SL. Find near, nearer or same sized spp.
SexingMales are more slender.
Jump to next section Habitat Information
DistributionCentral Africa North of the River Zambezi - Found in the Nile, Niger, Volta and Lakes Chad & Tanganyika
African Waters, Nile (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Nigeria Waters, Niger (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Volta (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Western Rift Valley Lakes, Tanganyika (click on these areas to find other species found there)
African Waters, Chad (click on these areas to find other species found there)
Show it on a map (Click the map-icon to show/hide map of species distribution)
IUCN Red List StatusLeast Concern
pH6.5 - 8.2
Temperature23.0-30.0°C or 73.4-86°F (Show species within this range)
Jump to next section Husbandry Information
FeedingLive fish, earthworms (bloodworm for smaller fish), chopped meat or seafood. Care must be taken not to overfeed as this fishes is a real glutton.
FurnitureA dimly lit tank with a suitably sized retreat - appears to prefer stone over wood.
CompatibilityA loner, adult fish must be kept alone.
Suggested TankmatesNone, for reasons that should be obvious!
BreedingUnknown although it is reported that (a) the fish spawn in burrows and (b) that they may be mouthbrooders.
Jump to next section Further Information
ReferencesSystema Naturae Linnév. 1 (pt 3) - pp1354
Registered Keepers(1) arapaima, (2) Lornek8, (3) Silurus, (4) JAYcarreon, (5) Attu, (6) amazonfishman, who also notes: "This specie was kept successfully with 3 synodontis multipunctatus and 2 flavitaeniatus for 6+ months. I believe the synodontis are immune to the e-cats discharge. ", (7) Plunt, (8) Mike C, (9) Djthomas, (10) Viktor Jarikov, who also notes: "Named Plumpy. Fun to watch, though comes out only during feeding. Eats all. Elusive. Gentle.", (11) djechoskittykat, (12) Yellowpieslinger, (13) cbudz, (14) arapaimag (k: 3), (15) lethalcustoms00 (p: 2), (16) pinsonja (p: 2, k: 4), (17) Shipmonkey, who also notes: "A model community tank dweller in a 240 gallon West African community tank. It was introduced to the tank as a small 3" specimen and now, as of 8/20/15, is currently over 14" in length.", (18) chewy922, (19) Toolsforfish, (20) faxling, who also notes: "Loves Hikari® Algae Wafers™", (21) cowturtle, (22) dmcat, (23) Billyc, (24) Lycosid, (25) Valk176, (26) Electrocat, (27) porinocoense, who also notes: "Very sociable, you can stick your hand in the tank and they will come and just check your hand out. Though I would not recommend doing this with large specimens... For obvious reasons...".

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Breeding ReportsNone.
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Last Update2005 Dec 11 00:00 (species record created: 2000 May 01 11:22)

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