Putting the Catfish Among the Pigeons

Fish in the Tarn river in southern France may well regard themselves as hunted — persecuted even — by everything from fishermen, kingfishers, cormorants, gannets, penguins, pelicans, puffins, (well maybe not the last three) in that order.

Putting the catfish among the pigeons

But now the creatures of the Tarn are getting their own back — or at least some recently introduced catfish appear to be —  according to a surprising discovery by locals fishing in the river near Albi, home to the Toulouse Lautrec museum and some 70 miles north-east of Toulouse.

Here as the Tarn flows through the city it makes a small island under a bridge where scavenging city pigeons gather to preen and bathe after overfeeding on stale bread and local garbage.

Lurking nearby however are some unlikely predators – a school of 1 to 1.5 metre long catfish, members of the largest freshwater fish family in Europe.

The Albi catfish would appear to have been taking lessons from local acrobats and attracted by vibrations in the water caused when pigeons take a dip, have learnt how to execute a deft double belly flop, beach themselves momentarily amid the unsuspecting pigeons, grab an obese bird and then flip back into the water to devour their uncooked pigeon pie.

The catfish brigade — once just lowly bottom feeders believed to prefer dank, dark depths, to the sparkle of sunlight playing on river water – have, it would seem, grown tired of a dull diet of prawns and similar slim pickings and are on the prowl for flesh — in the shape of that unloved urban scavenger, the pigeon. Hurrah some in the city might say wondering if this is Nature’s way of helping thin out the ranks of messy Albi pigeons.

For as reported by Toulouse-based scientists Frédéric Azémar, Arthur Compin, Mathieu Guillaume and Frédéric Santoul European catfish, introduced into the Tarn in 1983, appear to have turned into freshwater killers in an unusual adaptation to their normal environment.

The video clip below shows them in action attacking and feeding on pigeons unguardedly preening themselves on the Tarn sandbank:

The scientists from several faculties in Toulouse have studied their unusual behaviour and dubbed the rogue catfish  “freshwater killer whales.”

AS Julien Cucherousset, one of the scientists involved, notes the behaviour of the Tarn catfish is similar to that of the Argentinian killer whale which swims onto beaches to seize resting sea-lions.

The scientists watched and filmed the catfish for five months from a bridge over a small island in  the middle of the Tarn as it passes through Albi.

Over that period they observed 54 beaching incidents, where the catfish managed to catch a bird 28% of the time, dragging them off for their supper.

While the beachings were quick – lasting from less than one second to no more than four seconds – in about 40% of cases the fish, using a considerable amount of energy, lunged so far from the water that more than half their bodies were exposed.

The researchers findings were reported in the open-access scientific journal PLoS ONE.

Cucherousset, Bouletreau, Azemar, Compin, Guillaume & Santoul. 2012. ‘‘Freshwater Killer Whales’’: Beaching Behavior of an Alien Fish to Hunt Land Birds. PLOS ONE

So now these local bottom feeders have perfected their flesh finding attack missions might they move on to greater things?

European catfish you see are reported to be the largest freshwater fish on the continent and third largest in the world, and while the picture below shows they can be turned into a tasty summer lunch dish, as they get bigger, meaner and hungrier …. will they remain content with a row of sitting ducks, sorry pigeons?

English: Fried catfish, New Orleans style

Fried catfish, New Orleans style (Credit: Wikipedia)

As with sharks once they have a taste for flesh who knows where they will stop.

Imagine the scene — an unwary fishermen taking a catnap, one leg in the water, while his fishing lure unwittingly alerts an emboldened local catfish to meal potential,  suddenly he is awoken by a horde of hungry flesh-eating acrobatic catfish lunging through the air!  Might make even the bravest fisherman think twice about buying that compulsory local carte de pêche.

Story: Ken Pottinger



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