Armored, invasive, destructive: Hundreds of suckermouth catfish found in Texas river

Screengrab from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Facebook post.
·2 min read

Hundreds of hard-to-kill catfish were recently caught in a Texas river — but what makes them so tough, and why do wildlife experts want them gone?

The species name, “suckermouth armored catfish,” only partially answers that first question, and the fact that they’re invasive doesn’t fully address the second.

Originating from the waters of South America, the suckermouth is “an aquarium fish that was released into the wild [and] has grown out of control,” the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said. The armored catfish is a long way from home swimming around Texas waterways, but it has thrived anyway, to the detriment of the state’s natural ecology.

A team of researchers from Texas A&M and Texas State recently pulled 406 suckermouth armored catfish, also called plecos, from the San Marcos River “during a dewatering event” at a public park.

“Information collected from these fish will help managers to better understand how to effectively control this invasive species,” TPWD said.

Aside from potentially out-competing native fishes, the suckermouth likes to “dig burrows in banks,” which leads ”to erosion and bank destabilization,” according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The algae-eating fish is commonly found in aquariums, where it can be seen hoovering the green plant matter it loves off rocks, tiny decorative scuba divers, the walls of the tank, really anywhere it can get at it, according to Cool Green Science, a blog run by The Nature Conservancy.

In Florida, where the suckermouth is also invasive, the fishes are known to swarm manatees and eat algae that grows on them, outlets report. This stresses out the slow moving sea cows and is possibly harmful to them, experts say.

The suckermouth’s reputation as an aquarium cleaner is likely how it was introduced into U.S. waters in the first place, either deliberately or accidentally dumped — a problem that still occurs, according to Texas State University.

The suckermouth has a strong exterior and protruding spines for further protection. It can breathe outside of water for at least 20 hours and “walk” on land at roughly 2.3 miles per hour, according to Cool Green Science.

These traits together make for a hearty fish that is able to jump from one body of water to another, Salisbury University researcher Noah Bressman, told the outlet.

Bressman explains that if a bird swoops down and grabs a suckermouth, it may drop it soon after rather than get a beakful of spines and armor.

“The bird often gives up, and drops the pleco. It can be a good distance away from where they caught it,” he told Cool Green Science.

If it survives the fall, the fish could potentially walk for hours until it finds a body of water.

Besides Texas, the fish are also found in Florida, Nevada and “possibly Wisconsin,” according to Texas State University.

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