Striped eel catfish are nature’s copy paste, paste, paste, paste


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 9 March 2020
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Safety in numbers has never been more true than when it comes to the striped eel catfish, a serpentine species with an impressive plume of whiskers sprouting from its face and propensity for highly coordinated group activities.

FOUND IN THE Indian Ocean, the western Pacific Ocean, and occasionally the freshwaters in East Africa and Madagascar, striped eel catfish have a wide range throughout the temperate waters off the north, east, and west coasts of Australia.

A member of the eeltail catfish family (Plotosidae), the striped eel catfish can grow to more than 30 cm long. And it’s not just the species’ elongated, slender body that gives it the appearance of an eel. Other than its first dorsal (top) fin, its second dorsal, caudal, and anal fins are fused into one, so it looks just like an eel’s tail.

When a striped eel catfish is still young, it will take to extreme schooling, forming groups of up to 100 individuals that move through the ocean as one.

(Image credit: Richard Ling/Flickr)

The way striped eel catfish move in perfect unison within a tightly packed shoal serves to confuse potential predators that might be looking for a single prey animal to pursue. Known as the ‘oddity effect’, the idea is to avoid becoming the odd one out.

Related: Underwater and underrated: the truth behind fish intelligence

Here they are in action:

When these fish grow older, they don’t tend to school nearly as much, because they’ve got an even better defence mechanism: venom.

The first dorsal fin and each of the pectoral (side) fins are equipped with highly venomous spines, which can inflict a nasty wound if you get too close.

While the juveniles wield a mild version of the venom, which will make your fingers tingle if you touch them (not recommended), a scrape from an adult striped eel catfish can actually be fatal, especially if you’re attacked multiple times.

Despite their intimidating venom, striped eel catfish prefer to keep themselves hidden, and there’s nothing they like better than a conveniently placed terracotta pipe.

Look how happy they are!

(Image credit: Jin Kemoole/Flickr)