Catfish of the Month Right May 2000

Malapterurus electricus
Electric Catfish, Elektrisk Mal (Sweden), Elektrisk Malle (Denmark), Elmalle (Denmark), Zitterwels (Germany) - Malapterurus electricus   (Gmelin, 1789)

Article © Julian Dignall, uploaded May 01, 2000.

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.

Down Cat-eLog Data Sheet
Scientific Name Malapterurus electricus  (Gmelin, 1789)
Common Names Electric Catfish
Elektrisk Mal (Sweden), Elektrisk Malle (Denmark), Elmalle (Denmark), Zitterwels (Germany)
Type Locality Nile River at Banha, Egypt, 30°28'N 31°11'E.
Synonym(s) Silurus electricus
Pronunciation mah lah TERR oo russ - ell eck trick uss
Etymology Malapterurus: 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. 
Down Species Information
Size 1220mm or 48" SL. Find near, nearer or same sized spp.
Sexing Males are more slender.
Down Habitat Information
Distribution Africa: occurs in much of the Nile system (exclusive of Lake Victoria), the Lake Turkana, Lake Chad and Senegal basins, throughout the Niger system, and in smaller southward flowing basins in west Africa (rivers Bandama through Volta).
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)
African Waters, Nigeria Waters, Agulu (click on these areas to find other species found there)

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IUCN Red List Category Least Concern, range map and more is available on the IUCN species page. Last assessed 2019.
pH 6.5 - 8.2
Temperature 23.0-30.0°C or 73.4-86°F (Show species within this range)
Down Husbandry Information
Feeding Live fish, earthworms (bloodworm for smaller fish), chopped meat or seafood. Care must be taken not to overfeed as this fishes is a real glutton. User data.
Furniture A dimly lit tank with a suitably sized retreat - appears to prefer stone over wood.
Compatibility A loner, adult fish must be kept alone.
Suggested Tankmates None, for reasons that should be obvious!
Breeding Unknown although it is reported that (a) the fish spawn in burrows and (b) that they may be mouthbrooders.
Breeding Reports There is no breeding report.
Down Further Information
Reference Caroli a Linné ... Systema Naturae per regna tria naturae v. 1 (pt 3), pp 1354.
Registered Keepers There are 32 registered keepers, view all "my cats" data.
Wishlists Love this species? Click the heart to add it to your wish list.
There is but a single wish to keep this species, see who wants what.
Spotters Spotted this species somewhere? Click the binoculars!
There are 14 records of this fish being seen, view them all.
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Malapterurus electricus QR code LFS label creator
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Last Update 2021 Mar 10 11:00 (species record created: 2000 May 01 11:22)

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