Ameiurus melasBlack catfish(Also: Bullhead; Catfish; Hornedpout; Yellow belly bullhead)

Geographic Range

The native range of Ameiurus melas extends west from the Appalachian mountain range to Arizona, north to southern Canada, and as far north and east as New York. It can be found as far south as northern Mexico, and the distribution excludes all but the panhandle of Florida. Introduced populations occur in parts of California and Nevada. It also has been introduced to parts of England. (Etnier and Starnes, 1993)


Black bullheads occupy most freshwater habitats, from small farm ponds to large lakes. They can inhabit many waters that are otherwise unsuitable for other fishes. They can tolerate poorly oxygenated, polluted, turbid, and high temperature waters. Because they are relatively small, black bullheads also occupy many small creeks and rivers. They prefer soft bottoms (in creeks and rivers) and avoid free flowing waters where water moves rapidly. They feed in waters from one to three meters deep. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004; Etnier and Starnes, 1993)

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

Physical Description

Black bullheads are distinguished by their robust, bulky head. They have a very broad head with pigmented barbels. The color ranges from dark brown to black dorsally, yellow to white ventrally. Color varies greatly depending on location and water features. They have long barbels, which are completely pigmented, and nostril whiskers resembling "horns". Their fins have black pigmentation, the caudal fin is rounded and occasionally has a pale vertical stripe at its base. Anal fin rays range from 19 to 25, caudal fin rays from 15 to 18. Gill rakers range from 16 to 18. Similar species include yellow bullheads (Ameiurus natalis),and brown bullheads (Ameiurus platycephalus). Black bullheads are the only bullhead species (Ameiurus) with completely pigmented barbels. Yellow bullheads have no pigmentation and brown bullheads have light pigments on the ends of the barbels. Black bullheads naturally hybridize with brown bullheads. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004; Etnier and Starnes, 1993)

  • 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


After spawning, eggs hatch in 4 to 10 days. Free swimming fry remain close to the adult male for around two weeks. During this time the young reach around 25 mm in total length. Average growth is to 170 mm in the first year, 240 mm in the second year, 290 mm in the third year, 320 mm in the fourth year, peaking at around 350 mm total length by the fifth year. Sexual maturity is reached around 160 mm. Population density greatly affects black bullheads and sizes may vary greatly due to this. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004; Etnier and Starnes, 1993)


After a female has constructed a nest, she intices a male by nudging the male's abdomen with her snout. After breeding, the pair lay side by side, with the male curling his caudal fin around the females mouth. After several pairings, spawning can be noticed by a quivering in the female. The female guards the nest for the first day, then the male takes over for the remainder of egg and fry protection. (Etnier and Starnes, 1993)

Spawning occurs between May and July. The female fans out a saucer shaped nest in a soft substrate, then removes larger elements with her snout. The male is nearby during the construction of the nest. Nests are typically in 2 to 4 feet of water and range in diameter and depth according to the substrate. On few occasions nest lay beneath a log or other forms of 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. (Etnier and Starnes, 1993)

  • Breeding interval
    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

Prior to breeding, females construct a nest using pelvic and anal fins. After breeding the female guards the nest for the first day. After the first day males take over and guard the nest for up to 10 days until the eggs hatch. For the next two weeks the young remain close to the male. (Etnier and Starnes, 1993)

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


Black bullheads have an average lifespan of five years in the wild and a slightly higher lifespan in captivity. The oldest found are around ten years. They are easily kept in aquariums and adapt well. If the proper space and living conditions are met, many find the these fish thrive well in captivity. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004)

  • 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


Adults are very inactive during daylight hours, feeding almost exclusively after dark, and are seldom seen or caught in rivers and streams until after dusk. Blacks bullheads tend to look for food after dark along with up to four others. No social systems have been observed. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004)

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)

Communication and Perception

Black bullheads have taste buds on in the mouth that help differentiate prey items. Barbels are used to pick up chemical and hydrodynamic cues left by prey. As in many catfishes the swim bladder is used to pick up on vibrations, as well as communicate. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004)

Food Habits

Young black bullheads usually thrive on ostracods, amphipods, copepods, and insects and their larva. Young feed primarly in schooling patterns during midday. Adults tend to be nocturnal, and feed on a wide variety of invertebrates. Midge larvae and other young insects are the primary diet for adult bullheads. Black bullheads have been known to eat small fish and fish eggs as well. (Etnier and Starnes, 1993)

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


Young black bullheads may fall prey to largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) and other basses, as well as walleye (Sander vitreus). They are protected from some predation by their venomous pectoral spines, that can inflict a painful sting. (Etnier and Starnes, 1993)

Ecosystem Roles

Black bullheads raise turbidity levels in farm ponds. Because of this they can negatively affect other species which also inhabit the pond. Black bullheads can survive in muddy or turbid waters where many species do not thrive. Black bullheads are important intermediate predators in the ecosystems in which they live.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

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 when body size proportions are considered. Many black bullheads are kept in captivity because they adapt well and have a long lifespan. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004; Etnier and Starnes, 1993)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Black bullheads are not considered a problem to most humans. In some cases where overpopulation is a problem, they may never reach acceptable angling size. Where stocked in Europe, most populations are too dense to reach full size capacity, which makes them generally an unpopular species. Black bullheads can cause a painful sting if pectoral spines puncture human flesh. Black bullheads contain small amounts of venom at the ends of spine which can cause pain for up to a week. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004; Etnier and Starnes, 1993)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans

Conservation Status

Black bullheads are common and sometime very abundant throught their range. They have become a popular gamefish in many areas, so due to stocking in many ponds and lakes black bullheads are a stable and growing species. ("A Boundary Waters Compendium", 2004)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

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



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


Referring to an animal that lives on or near the bottom of a body of water. Also an aquatic biome consisting of the ocean bottom below the pelagic and coastal zones. Bottom habitats in the very deepest oceans (below 9000 m) are sometimes referred to as the abyssal zone. see also oceanic vent.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


flesh of dead animals.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


active at dawn and dusk


particles of organic material from dead and decomposing organisms. Detritus is the result of the activity of decomposers (organisms that decompose organic material).


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


seaweed. Algae that are large and photosynthetic.


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


an animal which has an organ capable of injecting a poisonous substance into a wound (for example, scorpions, jellyfish, and rattlesnakes).


uses sight to communicate


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.