These Tiny Catfish Pack A Punch

Have you ever gone netting in a river or a pond, looking for tadpoles and minnows, only to scoop out a tiny catfish? You didn’t even have to stick your hand in a dark underwater hole to get it. How exciting! But wait. It’s important to learn about these miniature whiskered fish before you go handling them.

Size matters


These little fish are called madtoms, and they are the smallest members of the catfish family. They can be as small as 1 1/2 inches long and grow up to 7 inches long. With sizes like this, most madtoms can easily fit in the palm of your hand.


Slippery smooth


Like all catfish, madtoms don’t have scales. When you pick them up, they feel smooth and a little slippery, kind of like a tadpole.


Fancy facial hair


Like all catfish, madtoms have whiskers. Called barbels by scientists, these whiskers are not to make them look fancy. Barbels have taste buds on them! They test out the environment, snacking as they swim along. When something strikes their fancy, it’s dinnertime! It would be kind of like you running around with your tongue hanging out, licking the monkey bars, then the table, until you came across something you wanted to eat. You probably wouldn’t enjoy dinner with a madtom. Their favorite foods are insects, plankton and tiny little particles in the water. Yum!


Finning along


Fins are something else that make a catfish a catfish. Catfish have smaller second fins on their backs close to their tail fin that looks a little fleshy tab. This is called an adipose fin. What makes a madtom a madtom is that the adipose fin is longer and almost connects with the tail fin.


Don’t touch that!


The coolest feature of a madtom — and the most important when scooping in a pond — is that they have venomous spines! These are found on their back and side fins. They don’t go around trying to sting animals with their spines, but it does make them a little less appetizing for other critters. One sting can knock out a predator for hours. If you get hit with a madtom’s spines, it would probably feel a little like getting stung by a bee.


Time to explore


Here are the types of madtoms found in Illinois:

  • Mountain madtom

  • Slender madtom

  • Tadpole madtom

  • Brindled madtom

  • Freckled madtom

  • Stonecat

  • Northern madtom (This species is endangered in Illinois.)

Go out and explore rivers and ponds — it’s great summer fun! Just be careful when you scoop up something that looks like a tiny catfish. Those spines are no joke!


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