African sharptooth catfish are among the most resilient of the 50-odd species of fish that inhabit the waterways of South Africa's Kruger National Park. Significant summer rains are yet to arrive in the reserve and many watering holes and pans have almost dried up. Thrashing about in what little water remains in the shrinking pools, catfish are some of the only remaining aquatic inhabitants. But their will to survive sometimes leaves them exposed to prowling predators. Leopards will rarely turn down an easy meal, and a mass of catfish writhing in a pool of "mud soup" presents an opportunity too good to pass up.

Tayla McCurdy was on a game drive with a group of friends in the north of the park recently when she came across a leopard slinking beside a drying waterhole. The waterhole – not much more than a puddle – was filled with sizeable catfish (Clarias gariepinus) and the leopard was clearly interested. "The writhing barbel* were too much of a temptation and so the leopard slowly approached the puddle – planning the hunt," McCurdy told Latest Sightings. After a cautious moment of hesitation, the cat made its move. 

"At first, it seemed like the barbel were slipping from his grasp as they viciously splashed – causing the leopard to dip his head almost completely into the muddy water. He finally grabbed a hold of his prize, then moved back below us out of sight."

McCurdy and co visited the drying waterhole again the following morning and found a mud-covered cat that they presumed to be the same leopard from the previous evening. It was feasting on a hefty catfish. She described the sighting as "definitely not something you see every day."

This is, however, not the first record of a catfishing cat. Leopards in Botswana's Savuti area are fairly well-known for their affinity for snatching fish from drying pools. Water surges and recedes seasonally in the alluvial floodplains of the Okavango Delta, so it seems that the leopards here have learnt to snatch fish when the water is low. Some individuals have even figured out how to actively hunt catfish in deeper channels:

To spot a fishing leopard in the Kruger National Park is a much rarer occurrence, although it's not entirely surprising. Catfish are uncanny survivalists capable of enduring extremely harsh conditions. They can tolerate low oxygen, acidic water, temperature fluctuations and are even able to spend a considerable amount of time outside of the water as they flail their way from pool to pool. A specialised suprabranchial organ consisting of a paired chamber with branches above their gill arches allows the eel-like fish to breathe air and move over land when needed. As waterholes dry up and catfish start squirming across the savannah, it's likely that many of them fall victim to opportunistic predators.


* Barbel is a common name for catfish that is used in South Africa. Somewhat confusingly, the term is also used elsewhere to describe many carp-like fish from the Barbus genus.

Header image: Mihael Hercog/Flickr