Black Bullhead Catfish Species Information

Black Bullhead - Ameiurus melas

Black Bullheads (Ameiurus melas) are in the catfish family and can be distinguished from Channel Catfish by their squared tail fins. Channel Catfish have distinctly forked tails. Black Bullheads have a very broad head with pigmented barbells. Of the six barbells, the two outermost are quite long and the four under the mouth are about the same size and in a line. Two nostril whiskers point upward and look rather like horns.
The color ranges from dark brown to black on top to yellow and white on the belly. The color is never mottled in appearance as brown bullheads are. The dorsal fin is fairly long, but not very deep. There is a small adipose fin. The caudal (tail) fin has rounded corners but comes straight down to give it the squared appearance and has 15 to 18 rays. The anal fin has 19 to 25 rays so is pretty decent size.

The gill rakers have from 16 to 18 rays. The pectoral fins have spines which actually carry a small amount of venom which can cause a stinging pain for up to a week. The barbells do not cause the sting but past confusion probably gave rise to such a belief. The average weight is one to two pounds and they almost never get as large as five pounds.

Geographic Range

The native range of Ameiurus melas extends west from the Appalachian mountain range to Arizona, north to southern Canada, and as far north and east as New York. It can be found as far south as northern Mexico, and the distribution excludes all but the panhandle of Florida. Introduced populations occur in parts of California and Nevada. It also has been introduced to parts of England.

  • Biogeographic Regions: Nearctic introduced, native, palearctic introduced

Habits of the Black Bullhead Catfish

Learn about the habits of this catfish species.

Physical Description

Black bullheads are distinguished by their robust, bulky head. They have a very broad head with pigmented barbels. The color ranges from dark brown to black dorsally, yellow to white ventrally. Color varies greatly depending on location and water features. They have long barbels, which are completely pigmented, and nostril whiskers resembling "horns". Their fins have black pigmentation, the caudal fin is rounded and occasionally has a pale vertical stripe at its base. Anal fin rays range from 19 to 25, caudal fin rays from 15 to 18. Gill rakers range from 16 to 18. Similar species include yellow bullheads (Ameiurus natalis),and brown bullheads (Ameiurus platycephalus). Black bullheads are the only bullhead species (Ameiurus) with completely pigmented barbels. Yellow bullheads have no pigmentation and brown bullheads have light pigments on the ends of the barbels. Black bullheads naturally hybridize with brown bullheads.

  • Range mass: 0.70 to 3.63 kg/1.54 to 8.00 lb
  • Average mass: 1.43 kg/3.15 lb
  • Range length:100 to 350 mm/3.94 to 13.78 in
  • Average length: 210 mm/8.27 in

Food Value

Life Span

5 - 6 years


Black bullheads occupy most freshwater habitats, from small farm ponds to large lakes. They can inhabit many waters that are otherwise unsuitable for other fishes. They can tolerate poorly oxygenated, polluted, turbid, and high temperature waters. Because they are relatively small, black bullheads also occupy many small creeks and rivers. They prefer soft bottoms (in creeks and rivers) and avoid free flowing waters where water moves rapidly. They feed in waters from one to three meters deep.

  • Habitat Regions: temperate freshwater
  • Aquatic Biomesbenthic: lakes and ponds rivers and streams
  • Range depth: 1 to 5 m/3.28 to 16.40 ft

Black Bullhead: Image Gallery


Black bullheads have an average lifespan of five years in the wild and a slightly higher lifespan in captivity. The oldest found are around ten years. They are easily kept in aquariums and adapt well. If the proper space and living conditions are met, many find these fish thrive well in captivity.

  • Range lifespan Status: wild 3 to 10 years
  • Average lifespan Status: wild 5 years
  • Range lifespan Status: captivity 4 to 10 years
  • Average lifespan Status: captivity 5 years
  • Typical lifespan Status: wild 4 to 10 years
  • Average lifespan Status: wild 5 years
  • Typical lifespan Status: captivity 5 to 10 years
  • Average lifespan Status: captivity 5 years

Home Range

Little is known about the size of the home range in black bullheads. They tend to utilize pools in rivers and occupy areas where food is available.

Conservation Status

Black bullheads are common and sometime very abundant through their range. They have become a popular gamefish in many areas, so due to stocking in many ponds and lakes black bullheads are a stable and growing species. 

Similar species

  • The Brown Bullhead, A. nebulosus, has 5-8 large sawlike teeth on the rear edge of the pectoral spine and 11-15 rakers on the first gill arch, and usually has dark mottling on the side of the body. Unlike in the Black Bullhead, the anal fin is uniformly colored; i.e., the color of the membranes does not contrast with that of the rays.
  • The Yellow Bullhead, A. natalis, has white or yellow chin barbels, no mottling on the side of the body, and 24-27 anal rays.