Catfish: Super-Taster of the Underwater World

AKA - The "swimming tongue"
17 April 2018

Interview with 

John Caprio, Louisiana State University




As it’s sense month, we’re celebrating the super sensors of the animal world! Here’s John Caprio from Louisiana State University who’s fished out a  case for super-tasters of the underwater realm... the Catfish!

John - Just looking at a catfish with its long, whisker-like growths and lack of body scales, you would never guess that it has a super power, the ability to actually taste its environment.

From its whiskers, which have the highest density, to its tail, the catfish is coated in taste buds, unlike a human whose taste buds are limited to inside its mouth.

A catfish is able to locate desirable food sources while avoiding bad-tasting materials in the water, even determining the direction of its food, all because it is a living, “swimming tongue.”
Izzie - Could you imagine being covered in taste buds? It’s the perfect super power if you’re walking around a bakery… Not so great if you’re in a public toilet though. So where can we find these swimming tongues?

John -  “Catfish” include approximately 3,000 species of true bony fish that possess characteristic protrusions from their head, termed whiskers, feelers or barbels.

Although some catfish live in saltwater, the majority of species are found in freshwater.

Some catfish have large eyes and live in clear waters whereas others have small, beady eyes, are bottom-dwelling & live in murky waters.

Adult catfish, depending upon the species, can be a few centimeters up to a few meters in length and many are quite tasty to humans.
Izzie - But, they’d probably taste the danger before you’d even got your fishing net out! But how do catfish taste their prey, before they’ve even caught it…? Back to John

John - A hungry catfish that is searching for dinner is attracted to amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Those chemicals are naturally released by aquatic organisms, dissolve in the water and indicate the presence of nearby food.

With its taste bud-covered body, catfish can amazingly detect one part amino acid in a billion parts of water----which rivals the sensitivity of a shark nose!

By contrast, a human tongue is at least 100,000 times less sensitive to amino acids and to many other foods.

If we had to search for our meals using only our taste buds, we’d be hungry all the time.

The “swimming tongue” that is the catfish, meanwhile, would be eating well…unless, of course, its food happened to come with a fish hook!


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