Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Real Catfish of Lake Tanganyika

Photo of Manti Te'o by Shotgun Spratling
and Neon Tommy at Wikimedia
Poor Manti Te’o may just be the most gullible schlub on the planet. For those of you that haven’t heard the story, the Notre Dame linebacker and runner-up for the 2012 Heisman Trophy led his team to the BCS National Championship Game, despite (or perhaps inspired by) the tremendous personal losses he has suffered this season. Last September, Te’o learned first of the death of his grandmother, and then within hours learned of the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua. But after months of grieving and playing his heart out, Te’o began to receive phone calls from his “dead” girlfriend, telling him she missed him. Totally freaky, right? Notre Dame hired investigators to look into the undead girlfriend and they discovered that not only is Kekua not dead, she was never alive. The girl never existed. And what of Te’o’s relationship with her? According to Te’o, he never actually met her in person: Their entire long-term relationship took place online and over the phone, so he never realized that her entire persona was a fraud. He was completely and totally catfished.

He was what?

The top definition of catfish at Urban Dictionary reads:

“A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they're not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.

Did you hear how Dave got totally catfished last month?! The fox he thought he was talking to turned out to be a pervy guy from San Diego!”
The term apparently originates with the 2010 documentary, Catfish, about a young man who falls in love with a woman on Facebook… who turns out to be someone else. Ew. But why the term catfish? A story in the movie explains that when cod are shipped from North America to Asia, their inactivity can result in mushy meat. Fishermen discovered that putting catfish in the cod tanks will keep the cod active and preserve meat quality. Like catfish for cod, the guy philosophizes, people that have deceptive identities keep idle people active. (The producers of the documentary now produce an MTV series by the same name about this online phenomenon).

But it’s not like real catfish can imitate others… Or do they?

Three poisionous Lake
Tanganyikan catfish. Figure from
Jeremy's 2010 Evolution paper.
A 2010 paper by Jeremy Wright at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor documents the first known case of mimicry in catfish. There are several types of mimicry in the animal world. In this case, Jeremy was investigating functional Müllerian mimicry, a phenomenon in which two or more poisonous species mimic each other's predator-deterring warning signals (as opposed to Batesian mimicry, where a non-poisonous animal looks like a poisonous one). It may seem excessive to have both poison and warning coloration, but poison only helps after you’ve been bit. If your predators are smart enough to learn from experience, you can benefit from having more poisonous buddies around that look just like you so that if a predator bites just one of you it will then learn to avoid all of you. Sometimes it pays to look just like everyone else.

But just because you look like everyone else doesn’t mean that it is because you’re imitating others. I mean, maybe that’s just the way you look. So how do you know if a bunch of animals that look like one another are using functional Müllerian mimicry?

Jeremy studied a number of similarly-colored, poisonous and closely-related catfish species in the African Great Lake, Lake Tanganyika. All of these Tanganyikan catfish species (from the Synodontis genus) have dark spots on a yellowish background and dark fins with white borders. Could this be because of functional Müllerian mimicry?

Jeremy put a bunch of largemouth bass each into their own tank. Largemouth bass are predators that use their vision to find and eat most any fish that will fit in their mouths. But these bass were from Michigan, so they’d never had any experience with a poisionous, spotted Synodontis catfish. A clear barrier divided each tank in half and the bass was placed on one side of the divider, and a bite-sized fish was put on the other. The bite-sized fish was either a spotted and poisonous Synodontis multipunctata catfish, a spotted and poisonous Synodontis petricola catfish, or a not-spotted and not-poisonous minnow. He then counted how many times the bass struck the plastic divider in 5 minutes as a measure of how much that bass wanted to eat the bite-sized fish. After the 5 minutes were up, Jeremy removed the divider and watched to see if the bass ate the bite-sized fish. For each bass, he did this every day for 5 days, giving each bass the same species of bite-sized fish every day, so it could learn from its past experiences.

A naïve largemouth bass excited to eat a bitesized, but poisonous Synodontis petricola catfish.

A naïve largemouth bass gets to try to eat a bitesized, but poisonous Synodontis petricola catfish… and it doesn’t go so well for him.

A no-longer naïve largemouth bass gives his best death stare to a bitesized, but poisonous Synodontis petricola catfish. Videos provided by Jeremy Wright.

On the first day with the bite-sized fish, all the bass struck at the divider equally regardless of whether it was a spotted poisonous catfish or a minnow. But after their first bite, the bass given spotted poisonous catfish quickly lost their interest in them even though the bass given minnows continued to vigorously strike at them every day. When Jeremy later gave them a different species of bite-sized fish, those previously given a spotted poisonous catfish avoided both species of spotted poisonous catfish, but readily ate the minnows. So the bass had learned. Spotted catfish: bad! Minnows: yum! And the spotted catfish look was transferable between the two species… the hallmark of functional Müllerian mimicry. Further analysis of the venom revealed that these catfish species were all equally poisonous: Painful, but not deadly.

Online catfish like Lennay Kekua are usually like these real-life spotted poisonous catfish: painful, but not (usually) deadly. And they typically have facebook pages and twitter accounts full of sexy photos and superficial chatter. If we’re smart, we can learn to avoid them. Do you know if all your “friends” on social media sites are who they say they are?

Want to know more? Check this out:

Wright, J. (2011). CONSERVATIVE COEVOLUTION OF MÜLLERIAN MIMICRY IN A GROUP OF RIFT LAKE CATFISH Evolution, 65 (2), 395-407 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01149.x


  1. "Poisonous", or the bass just don't like to eat a mouthful of sharp spines?

    1. Venomous at least... and the spines probably don't help any either :)