Mutant, man-eating catfish: everything is A-okay

This catfish is a small one: And it still wants to eat you.
This catfish is a small one: And it still wants to eat you.Courtesy Andyrob
The title of this post might be more accurate if it were something like “Mutant, man-eating catfish: probably not real,” but that one doesn’t thrill me so much. A lot of stuff has been spilled, leaked, excreted, and written on the Science Buzz’s cryptocouch of cryptozoology, but none of it looks like “probably not.”

So get a load of this: goonch catfish in the Kali River, which separates India and Nepal, are rumored to have developed a taste for human flesh and some locals think that they are now targeting human swimmers as prey! Whoa!

Bagarius yarrelli, or the goonch catfish, will commonly grow to a length of around 6 feet, and may weigh over 150 pounds. The story has it, however, that a particular goonch (or goonches) have grown exceptionally large off of a rich diet of partially burned human corpses thrown into the Kali River with the remains of funeral pyres. Not content with the charred leftovers of this nutritious delicacy, the goonch (or goonches) has been seeking out fresh meat.

Over the last twenty years, there have been a multitude of cases of bathers being pulled beneath the surface of the Kali, never to reappear. The most recent reported case involved an 18-year-old Nepali being dragged down into the river by something looking like “an elongated pig.” (Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up! Catfish can look like “elongated pigs,” okay?)

Isn’t that awesome? Mutant, man-eating catfish? Pretty sweet, especially if you don’t live by the Kali River.

Heck, I’d say you could stop reading now, if you want. I’m just going to go over a couple other points, which I think are more or less incidental. Not. Worth. Considering. Everything is so cool as it is, why would you want any more?

So. The mighty, carnivorous goonch… Mighty indeed is the goonch—the current world record holder comes in at 6 feet and 161 pounds, and this site claims that goonch weighing between 300 and 400 pounds can be observed in areas where fishing is not allowed (and, presumably, these are un-mutated specimens). “Carnivorous” is accurate too, although, well… generally B. yarrelli is thought to feed on aquatic insects, smaller fish, and prawns.

To describe the huge catfish as “mutants” might be a little sensationalistic too. Technically, to be a mutant something has to have a new genetic characteristic. To the best of my knowledge, eating people shouldn’t actually cause your genes to change. Unless those people were radioactive, or something, but in that case you’d probably just get cancer, not grow really big.

And there’s one other thing, one tiny little thing. I noticed that many of the websites for Kali River resorts and lodges (Bip, Boop, Bip) mention that large crocodiles can frequently be spotted in the water. But, you know, just because there are crocodiles around, and crocodiles have been known, on occasion, to pull people into the water and eat them, and people in this particular river have been pulled into the water and probably eaten… that doesn’t necessarily mean that crocodiles are responsible. Really, it could be anything.

Like, maybe, mutant, man-eating catfish.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Karen's picture
Karen says:

One eye in the photo is slightly orange.

I think it would be more "accurate" to make both eyes gleaming, evil red.

posted on Fri, 10/10/2008 - 2:33pm
peter Rosenberg's picture
peter Rosenberg says:

This was amusing and almost certainly correct.

posted on Mon, 10/13/2008 - 1:15pm
Candace's picture
Candace says:

wow. interesting.

posted on Thu, 10/16/2008 - 9:13pm
chip's picture
chip says:

the catfish seen on this page is not a goonch catfish ! It is not even fond on that side of the world.The catfish in this photo is a southamarican redtail catfish [practocephalus hemioliopterus].

posted on Mon, 04/13/2009 - 8:06pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Wow. Awesome identification from that picture, Chip!

I couldn't find any public domain images of a goonch catfish, so I settled for this large, vaguely sinister-looking guy. But I didn't know exactly what the species was.

And so... I am honored to offer you the Science Buzz Tropical Catfish Identification Award. Very very few people have one of those, Chip. Enjoy.

posted on Tue, 04/14/2009 - 5:42pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I noticed that you are somewhat skeptical on the missing people on the Kali river being eaten by goonch catfish. I also looked at your links to resort websites on the river. Yes, they did say you will see large crocodiles, however...... if you check a little closer.... you will notice these three destinations you speak of are in the southwest portion of india and the supposed goonch attacks are on the far north border of india and nepal. With this being said I believe that being several hundred miles further north and in the mountains would more than likely rule out the crocodile explanation due to the much cooler weather.

posted on Mon, 06/01/2009 - 1:35am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Hmm. That is interesting. Crocodiles may not be a very good explanation for these disappearances.

In general, I'm all for giant, mysterious man-eaters. It just seems to me a lot of the fun bonus parts of this story are nonsense. Eating the charred remains of human flesh (the funeral pyres thing) does not make something grow to a monstrous size. Eating the charred remains of anything shouldn't make something grow to a monstrous size. And the part about the fish getting a "taste for human flesh" from that? I'm not sure that your average fish is going to make the logical jump from funeral remains to fresh human. If anything, I think you'd just get a bunch of excited fish hanging around wherever people were dumping things in the river. And goonch catfish eat fish, shrimp, prawns and frogs. Going from a diet of stuff no bigger than your foot to humans (even kids) and water buffalo is a big leap.

So, I don't know, maybe the goonch are the only things in the Kali River that even come close to being the right size to eat a person. But being the right size to eat something isn't enough, so I want a better explanation of why they would do it, and why they would only have started doing it 11 years ago.

posted on Fri, 06/05/2009 - 8:30am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I own the series river monsters with jeremy wade expert biologist explorer and fishermen...you have to see it and hear his explaination of this catfish and what it's doing and why after seeing it and hearing all the testomony it is completely beliveably
that one or more Goonch catfish have been drowning people in the kali river why did it start only 11 yrs ago? well maybe it takes many years for a catfish to grow large enough to kill a person and maybe they have only been in that part of the river
for the past 40-50 yrs.you get an 8ft long 350 -400lb catfish
with a mouth 28 or more inches wide thats a potential man eater especially if the people in question only weigh 130-150ls....

posted on Mon, 08/10/2009 - 12:49pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

that makes no sence but if ur indian congrats i am 2 do u speak tamil or hindi or marati ?hafve u ever been 2 chenni /madras ?

posted on Mon, 06/01/2009 - 10:14am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

do catfish taste good?

posted on Mon, 08/10/2009 - 1:54pm
Thor's picture
Thor says:

I think the real question is: do catfish think we taste good?

posted on Mon, 08/10/2009 - 2:29pm
ariel (little mermaid)'s picture
ariel (little mermaid) says:

catfish taste amazing.

posted on Mon, 08/10/2009 - 3:24pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

A. Crocodiles would have made a much larger mess than a mere disappearance. Generally, blood is seen in the water, and thrashing too, when they are involved.
B. It was also considered shocking when, in recent years, shark attacks were claimed to have occurred in fresh water. We now know that bull sharks can swim into and live in fresh water, thereby leading to the attacks. However, for some reason, it did not happen as often or was not heard of or explained until recently (year-wise). Just because it is a recent development or a freak occurrence or just something before now unheard of does not, therefore, make it any less credible.
C. Who is to say WHAT makes anyone or anything grow? It's reasonable to think that these fish had, in the first place, inherited genes and bred in such a way as to create at least a few abnormally large fish. It's possible that the added nutrients of burnt flesh in their diets helped them to grow even larger and somehow in this eleven year time period they've started needing more than just trash from the bottom of the river to sustain them.
D. If you've ever analyzed your favorite (or most disliked) foods against your mother's cravings when she was pregnant (or the foods that made her gag), you may have found some shocking similarities. It is possible that the mother fish passed on something to her babies (like this) which caused them to relish certain tastes, like meat over garbage.

posted on Sun, 06/14/2009 - 10:26pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Hmm, yeah, these are good points. As I mentioned above, I'm not totally convinced crocodiles are the culprits here anymore. I can't say that I've seen enough crocodile attacks outside of movies, though, to agree or disagree with you, so I'll take your word for it on that.

The bull shark thing is an interesting point. You're right, just because something has never been observed before doesn't mean it's impossible. I'm just wondering why now? What's different now?

I do, however, think there are actually a lot of people who can say "what makes anyone or anything grow." We aren't talking about the mysteries of love here, we're talking about studied physiological behavior. So, yeah, "inherited genes" could determine an individual's size, but it would be really weird to suddenly see a population of individuals twice as big as you'd expect. And a good diet could probably also create some robust individuals, but, again, I really don't think that charred flesh is any better than a fish's regular diet. I'd guess it's worse.

Catfish don't give live birth—they're egg layers. So they don't exchange the delicious flavors and nutrients of charred human flesh with developing offspring.

I don't know why I'm arguing with you. I love the idea of giant man-eating catfish. But being a cool idea doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. Like... okay, let's move the situation to something more familiar.

Day-tripping hikers are disappearing in the forests of central Minnesota. They step off the path to take a leak, and they're gone. No physical remains are found. What's happening?

Duh. Giant raccoons. Sure, raccoons are usually small enough to be harmless, and they generally eat bugs, nuts, frogs, etc, but these raccoons have been feasting off the charred remains of grilled chickens left in picnic ground fire rings. Nutritionally similar to charred flesh of all sorts, the chicken has caused the raccoons to grow to unheard-of sizes, and, oddly, has instilled in them a desire for fresh meat. But not the kind of meat they usually eat (frogs, rodents, etc)... no, they want the meat of the long pig: human! And so the giant raccoons have developed a different hunting strategy from their inherited behavior, and are now pulling human hikers into trees to devour them. Now, some folks are saying that these hikers just got lost, or suffered from accidents. No, that's silly. Others are saying that a bear or mountain lion might be to blame. No, because bears and mountain lions are not often seen in this area, and they rarely attack humans anyhow. No, the obvious solution is freakishly large, man-eating raccoons that no one has ever seen. If you look at all the evidence that doesn't actually exist but people have guessed at, it all adds up to giant raccoons.

Makes sense, right?

posted on Mon, 06/15/2009 - 9:08am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Haha. That is a hilarious point, though it does make sense. However, the fish being raised on that food and the eggs having, at one time, been inside of the mother could still possibly give them a taste for flesh of some kind. The key word there being possibly.
Also, it is scientifically sound to say that recessive so called "giant genes" are found in many creatures, including catfish, and randomly appear in certain generations. If several of the fish just happened to have those genes it could logically translate into the breeding and growth of several or many of the larger size fish, making competition for food more aggressive and possibly contributing to surface hunting.
As for what has changed, who knows. But perhaps that will be discovered when that scientist risks his life to find the man-eaters.
And why are you arguing? Because it's fun to argue amiably and bring up different points to sharpen both of our thinking skills. :)

posted on Mon, 06/15/2009 - 10:09pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Oh, and an example of what I meant about what might make something grow: A goldfish may grow incredibly larger when kept in a larger habitat or an alligator may stay smaller if kept in a very small habitat. Who knows if there are some things we have not figured out about some species as far as what might make them grow larger or stay smaller - lack of food, abundance of food, lack of meat in diet, abundance of meat in diet. Until the right questions are asked no one will know all (or even some) of the right answers.

posted on Mon, 06/15/2009 - 10:34pm
Curzon's picture
Curzon says:

Believe me if you wish, I have hitch-hiked the United states and neighboring countries for more than 20 years. I have seen and been stalked by things I can't explain and I am telling you, around 2002, I was hiking north from Bloomington, Illinois in the afternoon on the far north side of the city on a state route and saw a racoon specimen that belonged in Jurassic park. There was an overpass and as I hiked around the side of the bridge I noticed that the underside had an unusual architechture. Instead of a concrete ramp down to the highway below, the underside of this overpass was like a large concrete box with the bridge above. Under the bridge, there was an approximately 4 foot gap and then an enclosed pit about twenty feet deep and maybe thirty-feet square. The bottom was dirt, old dusty-grey mildewed dirt and an old ( I do mean OLD) racoon was below apparently dead. He was the size of most people, bigger than I am and I am 5' 10' and 180lbs. His skull looked like it belonged more on a medium sized bear than a racoon and I lamented the fact that I had no camera and noone to contact about my find. As far as other specimens of other species, there are numerous accounts I have heard (documented and otherwise) of humans being prey to common animals like snakes and even spiders in the middle east. Humans being swallowed whole by large species of snakes is not unheard of and the Coelecanth which is a fish with legs was thought to be extinct 65 million years ago was found to be alive and well as recenty as the 1950's.

posted on Sat, 07/11/2009 - 4:02pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

The Kali river that you read about - where crocodiles exist - is a diferrent river in south India with the same name. There are no crocodiles in the river where the goonch lives.

posted on Fri, 03/12/2010 - 4:35pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Angler Jeremy Wade has caught the Goonch in Kali river...saw it on Animal Planet these fishes are huge upto 6 ft very capable to killing a human .. check out http://animal.discovery.com/fish/river-monsters/goonch-catfish/

posted on Sun, 10/24/2010 - 12:11am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

the catfish in that picture is a red-tail catfish and NOT a goonch. They are found in south america and isolated parts of southeast asia. They do not eat people

posted on Sun, 01/29/2012 - 8:45pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Yeah, I was just being silly there. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any free photos of the goonch to post. But thanks for helping identify that catfish!

posted on Mon, 01/30/2012 - 11:44am

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