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Black catfish

Ameiurus melas

What do they look like?

Black bullheads are distinguished from other, similar bullhead catfish by their very broad head and their long, dark "whiskers." These "whiskers" are known as barbels and are used to feel and taste their environment. They are dark brown to black on their top surface and yellowish or white on their undersides. Their fins are black and the tail fin is rounded, sometimes with a pale stripe at its base. Similar species include yellow bullheads,and brown bullheads. However, black bullheads are the only bullhead species with completely dark "whiskers." Yellow bullheads have no color on their "whiskers" and brown bullheads have light color on the ends of the "whiskers."

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    0.70 to 3.63 kg
    1.54 to 8.00 lb
  • Average mass
    1.43 kg
    3.15 lb
  • Range length
    100 to 350 mm
    3.94 to 13.78 in
  • Average length
    210 mm
    8.27 in

Where do they live?

The native range of black bullheads extends west from the Appalachian mountain range to Arizona, north to southern Canada, and as far north and east as New York. They can be found as far south as northern Mexico and Florida. Black bullheads have been introduced to parts of California and Nevada. They have also been introduced to parts of England.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Black bullheads are found in most freshwater habitats, from small farm ponds to large lakes. They can survive in water that other fish species cannot, including water that is polluted, has low levels of oxygen, is very warm, and has lots of suspended sediments (is turbid). Because they are relatively small fish, black bullheads can also live in small creeks and rivers. They prefer areas with soft bottoms (in creeks and rivers) and stay away from areas where the water is free flowing and moves quickly. They feed in waters that are from one to three meters deep.

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • benthic
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • Range depth
    1 to 5 m
    3.28 to 16.40 ft

How do they grow?

After spawning, eggs hatch in 4 to 10 days. Free swimming fry stay close to the adult male for around two weeks. During this time the young grow to about 25 mm in total length. They reach a total of 100 mm by the end of the first year and reach a maximum of 350 mm by the time they are 5 years old. They can mate after one year of growth. Black bullheads grow faster and become larger when there are fewer, other black bullheads around. Crowded conditions lead to lower growth rates.

How do they reproduce?

After a female has constructed a nest, she attracts a male by nudging the male's abdomen with her snout. The female will deposit eggs into the nest and the male deposits his sperm onto them afterwards. The female guards the nest for the first day, then the male takes over for the remainder of egg and fry protection.

Black bullheads spawn between May and July. The female makes a saucer shaped nest in soft substrate, like silt or mud. She removes rocks and other debris with her snout. The male is nearby during her construction of the nest. Nests are usually in 2 to 4 feet of water. Sometimes nests are beneath a log or other structure. Females produce between 2,000 and 3,800 eggs. Spawning occurs five times over a one hour period. The male watches over the nest after the first day for up to ten days. When the eggs then hatch, they stay close to the male for up to two weeks.

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Black bullheads breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Black bullheads breed from May to July.
  • Range number of offspring
    2,000 to 3,800
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range time to hatching
    5 to 10 days
  • Range time to independence
    12 to 17 days
  • Average time to independence
    14 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 to 3 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 3 years

Before breeding, females construct a nest using their fins. After breeding the female guards the nest for the first day, then the male takes over for up to 10 days until the eggs hatch. For the next two weeks the young remain close to the male.

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
    • protecting
      • male

How long do they live?

Black bullheads live about five years in the wild and slightly longer in captivity. The oldest are around ten years old. They are easily kept in aquariums and adapt well to captivity.

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    3 to 10 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    5 years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    4 to 10 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    5 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    4 to 10 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    5 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    5 to 10 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    5 years

How do they behave?

Adults are not very active during the day, they feed mostly after dark, and are seldom seen or caught in rivers and streams until after dusk. Blacks bullheads tend to look for food along with small groups of other black bullheads.

Home Range

Little is known about the size of the home range in black bullheads. They tend to utilize pools in rivers and occupy areas where food is available. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004)

How do they communicate with each other?

Black bullheads have taste buds on in the mouth that help differentiate prey items. Barbels are used to pick up chemicals in the water and water movements. As in many catfishes the swim bladder is used to pick up on vibrations, as well as communicate.

What do they eat?

Young black bullheads usually thrive on small crustaceans, like ostracods, amphipods, and copepods, as well as insects and their larva. Young feed in small schools during the middle of the day. Adults feed at night and eat on a wide variety of invertebrates. Midge larvae and other young insects are the main diet for adult bullheads. Black bullheads have been known to eat small fish and fish eggs as well. Black bullheads will also eat plant material and scavenge.

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • eggs
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial worms
  • aquatic crustaceans

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Young black bullheads may fall prey to largemouth bass and other basses, as well as walleye. They are protected from some predation by their venomous pectoral spines, that can inflict a painful sting.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Black bullheads can make the water in which they live more cloudy and turbid, making it difficult for other fish species to survive. Black bullheads are important intermediate predators in the ecosystems in which they live.

Do they cause problems?

Black bullheads are not considered a problem to most humans. In areas where populations are very dense, they never grow to their maximum size, making them unpopular for fishing. Black bullheads can cause a painful sting with spines on their sides. Black bullheads contain small amounts of venom at the ends of these spines, which can cause pain for up to a week.

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • injures humans

How do they interact with us?

Though black bullheads are relatively small, they have become a popular fish among anglers. They are known for their good taste and amount of fight during a catch. Many black bullheads are kept in captivity because they adapt well and have a long lifespan.

Are they endangered?

Black bullheads are common and sometime very abundant throught their range. They have become a popular gamefish in many areas, so fishery agencies sometimes "stock" lakes and ponds with black bullheads for fishermen.


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Chris Rose (author), Eastern Kentucky University, Sherry Harrel (editor, instructor), Eastern Kentucky University.


2004. "A Boundary Waters Compendium" (On-line). Accessed October 31, 2005 at

Etnier, D., W. Starnes. 1993. The Fishes of Tennessee. The University of Tennessee Press/ Knoxville.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Rose, C. 2006. "Ameiurus melas" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 29, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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