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WHY DO CATFISH HAVE “WHISKERS”?

By: Efraim Harari



The whiskers on a catfish are actually called barbels. Catfish, which are so named because of these cat-like whiskers, use their barbels to search for and taste food. Although catfish have eyesight, they don't need it to locate a meal.

Unlike cats, whose whiskers are made of hair, the catfish’s barbels are thin, sensory organs that are covered with taste buds. Catfish are fish that usually live in dark, muddy, and murky waters at the bottom of oceans, rivers, or streams. Because visibility is extremely low in such waters, a strong sense of taste is very important for the catfish, as that helps it find food.

The catfish is actually considered to have one of the highest developed senses of taste in the world. This is because catfish typically have over 100,000 taste buds, and some species have over 200,000 of them! That’s pretty impressive, considering that on average a person has 9,000 taste buds, a dog has 1,200 of them, and a cat has 450 of them!

The catfish’s taste buds are located all over its body, with most concentrated on its barbels. The barbels enable the catfish to not only taste when dinner is nearby, but also to hone in on the food’s exact location.

Catfish generally feed on insects, fish, worms, frogs, and occasionally small reptiles and mammals.

Fish Crossing!

The walking catfish
(
Clarias batrachus) is a species of catfish that can “walk” across dry land to another body of water. While it does not truly walk, it has the ability to use its fins to move over land!

How Barbels Help
Catfish Find Their Prey

Scientists already knew that catfish used their barbels to taste food, but a study conducted in 2014 uncovered the fact that some catfish use their barbels to detect even the slightest change in the water’s acidity, which helps them locate prey in complete darkness.

Scientists conducted a series of experiments on the Japanese sea catfish, a nocturnal fish common in Japan which swims along the ocean floor at night seeking worms and crustaceans. Their research revealed that the catfish’s barbels were incredibly sensitive to changes in the carbon dioxide and atomic hydrogen in the catfish’s surroundings. To investigate further, the researchers placed the catfish in tanks where they hid polychaetes, also known as bristle worms, the catfish’s favorite food.

These bristle worms release tiny amounts of carbon dioxide and atomic hydrogen as they respire (breathe), which slightly decreases the pH of the water. (This means that the water becomes more acidic.)

Even though the tanks were dark, the catfish were drawn to the areas where the worms were hidden. The catfish were always highly active and in “search mode” for prey when they sensed the pockets of acidity.

Torah Connection

Although the catfish was created with a pair of regular eyes, it is its barbels that it uses to search for and find food. The barbels of the catfish truly function as an additional set of “eyes” that actually provide the creature with a greater sense of vision.

As Jews, we have been blessed by Hashem with more than a pair of physical eyes. Every Jew was created with another set of eyes which, if used properly, will provide him with a better and more sensitive sense of vision. These are our “spiritual” eyes, which enable us to understand spiritual concepts, thereby helping us differentiate between good and bad. Indeed, in Hebrew, the term “ro'eh” refers both to actual vision as well as comprehension, because when a person understands a certain idea properly, it becomes clear to him as if he sees it with his physical eyes. In this sense we can see how the pasuk, Do not place a stumbling block before a blind person (Vayikra19:14), refers not only to placing a literal stumbling block before those who are physically blind, but also to leading those who are spiritually blind to committing an aveirah.

In order for a person to see accurately through his spiritual eyes, he needs the appropriate “glasses” – the proper training to find Hashem in every area of life. By learning Torah and doing mitzvot, we polish up those “glasses” so that our spiritual vision is as clear as possible. As the pasukin Tehillim(19:9) says, The mitzvah of Hashem is clear, illuminating the eyes.