Field of Science

Cichlids are Not the Only Radiation

The Congo River catfish Chrysichthys brevibarbis, copyright John P. Sullivan.

With their long barbels around the mouth and lack of scales, the catfish of the Siluriformes are one of most instantly recognisable groups of fishes. They are also one of the more diverse, with close to 3000 species and including a third of the world's freshwater fishes (Diogo & Peng 2010). Within the catfish, the Claroteidae are a distinctly African group of thirteen genera divided between two subfamilies, the Claroteinae and Auchenoglanididae. They are characterised by a moderately elongate body with a distinct adipose fin, and strong spines in the dorsal and pectoral fins (Geerinckx et al. 2003). Distinctive features of the Claroteinae include the presence of a toothplate on the palate. The Auchenoglanidinae have a rounded caudal fin and the anterior nostrils moved to the anteroventral side of the upper lip (Geerinckx et al. 2004). For a long time, the claroteids were included in the catfish family Bagridae before being raised to the level of their own family in 1991. A molecular phylogenetic analysis of the Siluriformes by Sullivan et al. (2006) placed the claroteids within a clade of African catfish that they somewhat whimsically labelled as 'Big Africa'. The Bagridae, meanwhile, were placed within 'Big Asia' (though one true bagrid genus, Bagrus, does occur in Africa). Sullivan et al. (2006) questioned claroteid monophyly, finding Auchenoglanidinae to be sister to a clade grouping the Claroteinae with the family Schilbidae, but other morphological studies have found claroteids as a monophyletic unit (Diogo & Peng 2010).

Lake Tanganyika catfish Lophiobagrus brevispinis, from

The Claroteinae are notable for having undergone something of an adaptive radiation in one of African Great Lakes, Tanganyika. Though not as dramatic as the famous radiation of cichlids in the same lake, the Tanganyikan claroteines comprise over a dozen species divided between four genera (Bailey & Stewart 1984; Hardman 2008). Seven of these are placed in the genus Chrysichthys which has a wide distribution around Africa; the other three genera are unique to the lake. Molecular phylogeny indicates that the majority of Tanganyikan claroteines represent a single colonisation of the lake; only Chrysichthys brachynema has colonised Lake Tanganyika independently (Peart et al 2014). This indicates that the genus Chrysichthys as currently defined is non-monophyletic (something that had previously been suggested on morphological grounds) but any consequent reclassification is yet to occur. The species of Chrysichthys are mostly larger than the endemic Tanganyikan genera, ranging from 19 to 77 cm within Tanganyika (species elsewhere in Africa may reach up to 1.5 m). Of the endemic genera, the monotypic Bathybagrus tetranema is about 15 cm in length but the other two genera Phyllonemus and Lophiobagrus are even smaller, less than 10 cm in length. Bathybagrus and Lophiobagrus also both have reduced subcutaneous eyes. In Bathybagrus, this possibly reflects their occurrence at greater depths than other Tanganyika fish, occurring down to 80 m (nowhere near the depths reached by Lake Baikal sculpins but still impressive enough in the low-oxygen depths of a tropical lake). Lophiobagrus species are specialised to live in the gaps between rocky rubble on the lake bottom. The species of this genus have also been observed secreting a toxic mucus that can be fatal to other fish; this mucus is believed to be secreted from enlarged glands behind the pectoral fins.

Subcutaneous eyes are also found in two claroteines outside Tanganyika: the species Amarginops platus and Rheoglanis dendrophorus, both found in the Upper Congo (Hardman 2008). These two species are specialised for life in river rapids.


Bailey, R. M., & D. J. Stewart. 1984. Bagrid catfishes from Lake Tanganyika, with a key and descriptions of new taxa. Miscellaneous Publication, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan 168: 1–41.

Diogo, R., & Z. Peng. 2009. State of the art of siluriform higher-level phylogeny. In: Grande, T., F. Poyato-Ariza & R. Diogo (eds) Gonorynchiformes and Ostariophysan Relationships: A Comprehensive Review pp. 465–515. Science Publishers.

Geerinckx, T., D. Adriaens, G. G. Teugels & W. Verraes. 2003. Taxonomic evaluation and redescription of Anaspidoglanis akiri (Risch, 1987) (Siluriformes: Claroteidae). Cybium 27 (1): 17–25.

Geerinckx, T., D. Adriaens, G. G. Teugels & W. Verraes. 2004. A systematic revision of the African catfish genus Parauchenoglanis (Siluriformes: Claroteidae). Journal of Natural History 38: 775–803.

Hardman, M. 2008. New species of catfish genus Chrysichthys from Lake Tanganyika (Siluriformes: Claroteidae). Copeia 2008 (1): 43–56.

Peart, C. R., R. Bills, M. Wilkinson & J. J. Day. 2014. Nocturnal claroteine catfishes reveal dual colonisation but a single radiation in Lake Tanganyika. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 73: 119–128.

Sullivan, J. P., J. G. Lundberg & M. Hardman. 2006. A phylogenetic analysis of the major groups of catfishes (Teleostei: Siluriformes) using rag1 and rag2 nuclear gene sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 41: 636–662.


  1. So well over half of all freshwater fish species are either cichlids or siluriforms?

    1. Huh, you'd think that one would be easier to answer. After a fair bit of hunting around, I found a breakdown of freshwater fish species by order on p. 4 of this book, which suggests that rather than being a third of freshwater fish species (as the source I cited in the post stated), catfish are probably about a fifth to a quarter.

      The total number of freshwater fish species is probably over ten thousand (the numbers are a bit shaky because new species continue to be described regularly). Freshwater catfish are about 2,300 species (rounded off). Cypriniformes are about 2600, so again about a quarter. Percomorphs include about 3300 freshwater species all up, of which cichlids are about 1700 and Cyprinodontiformes about 800. Characiformes (tetras, etc.) include 1300 species. The various other freshwater groups are all fairly low in species number, and probably only total about 600 species between them.


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