Black Catfish, Neosilurus ater (Perugia 1894)

Other Names: Butter Jew, Narrowfront Tandan, Narrow-fronted Catfish, Narrow-fronted Tandan

Black Catfish, Neosilurus ater. Source: Dave Wilson. License: All rights reserved


A relatively common dark brown to blackish eel-tail catfish with a paler belly and sometimes a mottled pattern. Adults may be a paler brown with a yellowish tinge during the spawning season. The Black Catfish has a relatively long snout with the mouth surrounded by 4 pairs of barbels.

The dorsal and pectoral fins are armed with serrated venomous spines that can inflict a very painful sting.

Video of a Black Catfish in the upper reaches of the Finniss River near Batchelor in the Northern Territory.

Video of Black Catfish in an aquarium.

Cite this page as:
Gomon, M.F. & Bray, D.J. 2022, Neosilurus ater in Fishes of Australia, accessed 14 Jun 2024,

Black Catfish, Neosilurus ater (Perugia 1894)

More Info


Widespread across northern Australia from The Kimberley (Lawley, Carson and Fitzroy Rivers), Western Australia, to the Pioneer River, Cape York, Queensland. The species also occurs in southern New Guinea. Inhabits swiftly flowing rivers and streams, and the still or gently flowing water in pools and side channels; also in acidic dystrophic lakes and floodplain wetlands. 


Dorsal fin I, 5-7; Pectoral fin I, 11-13; Pelvic fin 12-15; Caudo-dorsal-anal rays 120-160; Vertebrae 50-52

Body elongate and tapering posteriorly; head large (21-25% SL), broad, slightly flattened; snout long and slightly pointed; eye large, set high; 4 pairs of barbels around the mouth; maxillary and nasal barbs reaching to or slightly behind eye; outer mental barbel extending to pectoral fin base; gill rakers on 1st arch 24 to 32; teeth on premaxilla tiny, pointed, on each side of midline; teeth on palate 4 x larger, rounded; teeth on lower jaw pointed anteriorly, molariform posteriorly; lateral line extending almost to base of caudal rays; cluster of 5-25 temporal pores between eyes. Scales absent. 

Anterior dorsal fin small but relatively tall with 1 sharp spine and 5-7 soft rays; 2nd dorsal and anal fins confluent with caudal fin, rounded, 120-160 rays, originating well behind middle of back; caudodorsal fin base length 17 to 30% SL; pectoral fin with 1 sharp spine and 11 to 13 soft rays; adipose fin absent; fin spines stiff, sharp.


To 47 cm, but commonly to 25 cm.


Grey to blackish overall (sometimes mottled), paler on the belly. In some populations, both sexes become goldish on the sides during breeding.


Consumes mainly aquatic insects, molluscs and small crustaceans. Feeds by thrusting its snout into the sandy bottom.


Oviparous, benthic, pair spawners; breeding occurs December to March; adults migrate upstream into shallow riffle zones or pools to lay their eggs in crevices or amongst coarse sediment on the bottom. Females produce around 8000 eggs of about 2mm diameter with thick chorions and a rough surface texture with a large central yolk. The larvae hatch after 2-3 days.


The species is traded in the aquarium industry, and is a traditional food fish for Aboriginal peoples.


Typically solitary. The sharp dorsal and pectoral-fin spines are venomous.

Species Citation

Lambertia atra Perugis 1894, Ann. Mus. Civ. Stor. Nat. ‘Giacomo Doria’ (2)14: 551 (6). Type locality: Inawi, Papua New Guinea.


Gomon, M.F. & Bray, D.J. 2022


Atlas of Living Australia

Black Catfish, Neosilurus ater (Perugia 1894)


Allen, G.R. 1989. Freshwater Fishes of Australia. Neptune, New Jersey : T.F.H. Publications 240 pp., 63 pls.

Allen, G.R. 1991. Field Guide to the Freshwater Fishes of New Guinea. Madang : Christensen Research Institute 268 pp. 

Allen, G.R., Midgley, S.H. & Allen, M. 2002. Field Guide to the Freshwater Fishes of Australia. Perth : Western Australian Museum 394 pp.

Allen, G.R., Storey A.W. & Yarrao, M.  2008. Freshwater fishes of the Fly River Papua New Guinea. vii + 1-213 + pls.

Burgess, W.E. 1989. An Atlas of Freshwater and Marine Catfishes — a preliminary survey of the Siluriformes. Neptune City, New Jersey : T.F.H. Publications 783 pp.

Ebner, B., Brooks, S. & Kennard, M. 2019. Neosilurus ater. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T122900230A123382036. Accessed on 22 February 2022.

Grant, E.M. 1975. Guide to Fishes. Brisbane : Queensland Government, Co-ordinator General’s Department 640 pp.

Jeffree, R., Markich, S. & Twining, J. 2014. Diminished Metal Accumulation in Riverine Fishes Exposed to Acid Mine Drainage over Five Decades. PLoS One 9(3): e91371.

Larson, H.K. & Martin, K.C. 1990. Freshwater Fishes of the Northern Territory. Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences Handbook Series Number 1. Darwin : Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences 102 pp. 73 figs.

Leggett, R. & Merrick, J.R. 1987. Australian Native Fishes for Aquariums. Artarmon : J.R. Merrick Publications 241 pp. 142 figs.

Merrick, J.R. & Schmida, G.E. 1984. Australian Freshwater Fishes Biology and Management. Sydney : J.R. Merrick 409 pp. figs 280 col. figs.

Morgan, D.L., Allen, G.R., Pusey, B.J. & Burrows, D.W. 2011. A review of the freshwater fishes of the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Zootaxa 2816: 1-64

Morgan, D.L., Allen, M.G., Bedford, P. & Horstman, M. 2004. Fish fauna of the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia – including the Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Ngarinyin, Nyikina and Walmajarii Aboriginal names. Records of the Western Australian Museum 22: 147-161

Ogilby, J.D. 1908. New or little known fishes in the Queensland Museum. Annals of the Queensland Museum 9(1): 3-41. (as Neosilurus mediobarbis)

Perugia, A. 1894. Viaggio di Lamberto Lorio nella Papuasia orientale. Pesci d'acqua dolce. Annali del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale 'Giacomo Doria' 2 14: 546-553

Pusey, B.J., Burrows, D.W., Kennard, M.J., Perna, C.N., Unmack, P.J., Allsop, Q. & Hammer, M.P. 2017. Freshwater fishes of northern Australia. Zootaxa 4253(1): 1-104.

Pusey, B.J., Kennard, M.J. & Arthington, A.H. 2004. Freshwater Fishes of North-eastern Australia. Collingwood, Victoria : CSIRO Publishing 684 pp.

Pusey, B.J., Kennard, M.J. & Bird, J. 2000. Fishes of the dune fields of Cape Flattery, northern Queensland and other dune systems in north-eastern Australia. Ichthyological Explorations of Freshwater 11(1): 65-74

Raynor, T. S., Pusey, B.J. & Pearson, R. G. 2008. Seasonal flooding, instream habitat structure and fish assemblages in the Mulgrave River, north-east Queensland: towards a new conceptual framework for understanding fish-habitat dynamics in small tropical rivers. Marine and Freshwater Research 59(2): 97-116.

Roberts, T.R. 1978. An ichthyological survey of the Fly River in Papua New Guinea with descriptions of new species. Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology 281: i-vi + 1-72 Open access

Unmack, P.J. 2001. Biogeography of Australian freshwater fishes. Journal of Biogeography 28: 1053-1089.

Weber, M. & de Beaufort, L.F. 1913. The Fishes of the Indo-Australian Archipelago. Malacopterygii, Myctophoidea, Ostariophysi: I. Siluroidea. Leiden : Brill Vol. 2 404 pp. 151 figs.

Whitley, G.P. 1964. Freshwater Fishes of Australia. Brisbane : Jacaranda Press 127 pp. (as Lambertichthys ater)

Quick Facts

CAAB Code:37192009

Conservation:IUCN Least Concern

Danger:Venomous spines

Fishing:Aquarium fish


Max Size:47 cm TL

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Species Maps

CAAB distribution map