Electric Catfish

Last updated: April 18, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Pavaphon Supanantananont/Shutterstock.com

The electric catfish can discharge an electric shock up to 450 volts


Electric Catfish Scientific Classification


Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Electric Catfish Conservation Status

Electric Catfish Locations

Electric Catfish Locations

Electric Catfish Facts

Fish, invertebrates, and eggs
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Fun Fact
The electric catfish can discharge an electric shock up to 450 volts
Estimated Population Size
Biggest Threat
Most Distinctive Feature
The three pairs of barbells on the face
Other Name(s)
Optimum pH Level
7.0 – 8.0
African rivers and lakes
Larger fish
Ray-finned fish
Common Name
Electric Catfish
Number Of Species

Electric Catfish Physical Characteristics

  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Red
  • White
  • Cream
Skin Type
Average of 10 years
4.4kg (2lbs)
Up to 1.2m (4ft)

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The electric catfish is a family of around 21 species that can discharge an electric shock from a specialized organ.

This is not the only catfish family with an electric organ, but its electrical ability is particularly well-developed compared to the others. The catfish can discharge a shock of up to 450 volts to defend itself and capture prey. The shock also helps them navigate through the environment. The organ is composed of gelatinous muscle tissue set beneath the naked skin. This discharge is not known to be fatal to humans, but it can nevertheless hurt. The electric catfish are sometimes kept in aquariums as a pet.

Electric Catfish vs Electric Eel

The electric eel can deliver a stronger electric shock up to 600 volts, but otherwise, it uses electricity mostly in the same manner.

3 Electric Catfish Facts

  • The electric catfish was once depicted within the tombs of the ancient Egyptians. They called this fish “he who had saved many in the sea,” because when fishers received an electric shock from this fish, they would drop their entire catch in the water, thereby saving many of them from being eaten.
  • Electric catfish are primarily nocturnal. They are most active for the first four or five hours after sunset. The rest of the day is spent hiding in its shelter.
  • Electric catfish are highly territorial. They will use the electric discharge to defend their territory against intruders of the same species. The defender will usually give an open mouth display and then sway back and forth with its arched body. If that isn’t enough to deter the intruder, then it will start to bite and discharge a shock. Against intruders of a different species, they may resort directly to electric shocks.

Electric Catfish Classification and Scientific Name

The scientific name for the family of electric catfish is Malapteruridae. This name roughly translates from Greek to mean “a lot of fin and tail.” Mala means a lot of, pteron means fin, and oura means tail. There are two recognized genera within this family: Malapterurus (which contains some 18 species) and Paradoxoglanis (which contains around three species). The scientific name Malapterurus basically has the same meaning as the family name, but Paradoxoglanis translates to mean paradoxical or strange catfish.

Electric Catfish Appearance

The electrical catfish looks like most members of its order. It is characterized by a long, puffy body with thick lips, small eyes, a rounded snout, and three pairs of barbels (sensing organs that resemble whiskers). This fish has rounded pectoral and pelvic fins but lacks the dorsal (back) fin entirely. Some full-grown specimens from this family can easily measure up to 4 feet long from snout to tail, but most range somewhere between 2 and 3 feet on average. They are generally gray-brown on the back and sides. This slowly fades to white or cream around the stomach. Some have irregular black spots around the sides of the body too.

Electric catfish in aquarium tank. Some of these fish can easily measure up to 4 feet long from snout to tail.
Electric catfish in aquarium tank. Some of these fish can easily measure up to 4 feet long from snout to tail.

©Japan’s Fireworks/Shutterstock.com

Electric Catfish Distribution, Population, and Habitat

The electric catfish can be found in freshwater lakes and rivers throughout Africa, particularly in the vast Nile River. They generally prefer slow-moving or standing water with low visibility and lots of hiding places. The population status varies by species. According to the IUCN Red List, most species are considered to be species of least concern, but some are data deficient instead (meaning scientists haven’t gathered enough data about their population numbers). They do not appear to face many threats in their wild habitat.

Electric Catfish Predators and Prey

The electric catfish is one of the top predators in its natural habitat. Some species are bottom feeders, while others are active hunters. They can root around in the dirt with their long barbels.

What eats the electric catfish?

The electric catfish has few natural predators in the wild besides perhaps tigerfish and a few other larger types of fish.

What does the electric catfish eat?

The electric catfish feeds on a wide variety of different fish, invertebrates, and eggs by paralyzing its prey with an electric discharge. Many species are thought to be slow-moving and somewhat sedentary. This means they are probably opportunistic feeders that wait for food to wander through their territory, or they sift slowly through the dirt.

Electric Catfish Reproduction and Lifespan

Not a whole lot is known about the reproduction of the catfish, but if it’s like other members of the catfish order, it will only begin spawning once the water has reached an ideal temperature. When the timing is right, the fish will pair up with a mate and create a nest about 10 feet in length along the clay banks of the river or lake. The size and age of the female fish will often determine how many eggs she will lay in the nest. The male will then fertilize them with his sperm. It is not known whether the male will guard the nest against predators, but it seems likely. The fry usually leaves the nest within a few weeks after hatching and starts to fend for themselves until fully grown. The lifespan in the wild is thought to average about 10 years.

Electric Catfish in Fishing and Cooking

Smoked catfish are consumed as a delicacy in some parts of eastern Africa. It’s also caught for the pet and aquarium trade.

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Electric Catfish FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Where are electric catfish found?

Electric catfish are round throughout the freshwater lakes and rivers of Africa.

Can catfish electrocute you?

Yes, the shock is said to be painful, but no known person has ever died from an electrocution.

What size tank does an electric catfish need?

A full-grown electric catfish will probably reach somewhere between 1 and 3 feet long, although some specimens can reach up to 4 feet. The minimum tank size should be around 135 gallons with the temperature set between 74 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit, and the pH will need to range between 7.0 and 8.0. Catfish can do just fine on a diet of worms, shrimp, and krill, but make sure they are not overfed because they will eat anything offered to them. Bottom-feeding catfish will do some of the cleaning themselves, but nevertheless the tank will need some manual cleaning on a regular basis. Cleaning should be done with appropriate tools recommended by a professional. Obviously, because of its electrical ability, the catfish should be handled with care.

Does the electric catfish get along with any tank mates?

The electric catfish should never be housed with any live tank mates. These are highly territorial fish that could shock any tank mates to death.

How strong is an electric catfish?

The electric catfish is thought to deliver an electric shock up to 450 volts (although 350 volts seems to be a more typical number).

Can you eat an electric catfish?

Yes, the electric catfish is quite edible. It’s consumed throughout parts of Africa. Fortunately, a dead fish does not have the ability to shock.

Why is it called an electric catfish?

The name comes from the fact that it can deliver an electrical discharge.

What do electric catfish eat?

The diet mostly consists of smaller fish, invertebrates, and eggs.

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  1. Britannica / Accessed March 1, 2022
  2. Animal Diversity Web / Accessed March 1, 2022
  3. Sciencing / Accessed March 1, 2022
  4. Badmans Tropical Fish / Accessed March 1, 2022

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