Bizarre New Species of Catfish With Four Rows of Sharp Teeth Baffles Scientists

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With their waving facial barbels, catfish are very much a case of a face that only a mother could love, and a new species first found in India in 2003 is no exception to the rule – and has other bizarre features that have scientists wondering if this is an entirely new subfamily of fish.

Specifically, ichthyologists are finding the bulldoggy-faced Kryptoglanis shajii from Kerala impossible to classify within known families of catfish, thanks to a unique skeletal structure completely unlike that of its piscine cousins.

A family of species may be divided into one or more subfamilies – that is the science of taxonomy, classifying life forms into this or that family. The family of cats, for instance, is called felidae and includes everything from the kitty purring on your face in the morning to lions. In the case of Kryptoglanis shajii, it's definitely a catfish, scientists agree – just not one like any other.

Even on the outside, the Kryptoglanis is weird. It has, for instance, no dorsal fin. While on the fins it does have – they have no spines. It has four sets of barbels, which are those taste bud-coated facial tentacles we humans find so revolting – most catfish have less.

Also, while other catfish – being bottom feeders – have mouths directed downward or at least straight, this one's is directed upward, and it has a terrific underbite to boot – its lower jaw protrudes.

Think that's strange? Its eyes are subcutaneous – which means they're beneath the skin, and it has four rows of very sharp teeth, indicating that for all its diminutive size – it seems to max out at the size of your pinkie – it's a fierce predator.

Now, using digital x-ray tomography, researchers led by Dr John Lundberg at Drexel University in Philadelphia looked inside the weird creature, which was first caught in a well but normally dwells in subterranean rivers. Many species of catfish do the same. But in this case, Lundberg says certain bones are so strangely shaped they may be unique, not just among catfish but all fish.

Hence, Kryptoglanis defies classification. One solution for that conundrum is to create a new family entirely. Lundberg says the Kryptoglanis probably eats small invertebrates and insect larvae. He says it has adapted to its environment, but is so unlike any other catfish it may end up occupying a scientific family of its own.

That very proposal was touted in a paper on the fish's bone structure, published last month in the journal Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwater: "Our osteological analysis of Kryptoglanis demonstrates that this genus cannot be accommodated into any known catfish family, and we therefore propose the new family, Kryptoglanidae, for it," wrote a team of English and Indian scientists headed by Ralf Britz.

Skull of Kryptoglanis, showing its four rows of sharp teeth - a face only a mother could love.Credit: Reuters
Kryptoglanis, in all its dimunutive glory. Good luck finding its eyes. Credit: Reuters
This is not a tiny Kryptoglanis, this is a Tsar Pink catfish showing impressive barbels - the whiskers with taste buds on its head.Credit: Reuters

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