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article imageKampango — African catfish takes parental devotion to extremes

By Igor I. Solar     Dec 29, 2013 in Science
Parental catfish of Lake Malawi feed and care for their young in a way similar to birds. Both parents defend the nest and the female sheds unfertilized eggs which are eaten by the catfish young. Another fish species takes advantage of this unusual trait.
There are numerous examples in nature of organisms that amaze us with their unique characteristics and behaviour. Whether for their beauty, for their size, or because of their remarkable abilities, creatures show us their intriguing evolutionary adaptations.
Among the most important adaptations to ensure survival of the species is the parental care and the setting up of associations aimed at promoting the survival of the young and increasing their potential to reach reproductive age.
A little-known case is the reproductive behavior of Kampango, also known as kampoyo (Bagrus meridionalis), an African catfish endemic to Lake Malawi. Kampango is a rather large catfish. Adults measure about 50 centimetres long, but in exceptional cases they can reach almost 1.5 meters and weigh more than 9 kilos. It is a naked (scale-less) nocturnal predator fish that inhabits the depths of Lake Malawi and some of the tributaries of the great lake, such as the Shire River.
Lake Malawi, located between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, is one of largest and deepest of the African Great Lakes and the ninth largest in the world. Biodiversity studies have shown that Lake Malawi is home to more species of fish than any other body of freshwater in the planet.
Fishing canoes at Lake Malawi  Africa.
Fishing canoes at Lake Malawi, Africa.
What makes Kampango special?
There are two main reasons why Kampango is a very special fish. The first is its unique and complex reproductive characteristics, and the second is its great value as food fish for the coastal communities of Lake Malawi that regard this fish as a delicacy.
Both male and female kampango carry out an exceptional task at taking care of their offspring. This level of parental care is not common in fish, but more often seen in higher vertebrates, such as birds and mammals.
This is the only fish species known that feeds the young with non-fertilized eggs (called “trophic eggs") that are regularly shed by the female. The young hang around for about three months and stay below the belly of the female who at intervals produces batches of non-fertilized eggs. These eggs are quickly eaten by the small catfish young. The male also contributes to the feeding by gathering and sifting small food material from the substrate and delivers it to the baby fish. However, stomach analyses of baby kampango have shown that more than 90 percent of its contents consisted of eggs.
Brood parasitism ('Cuckoo behaviour') of 'bombe' catfish
Such dedicated efforts at guarding the nest, and the active feeding of the young, which is known to significantly enhance the offspring’s growth and survival, could not go unnoticed by other fish in the neighbourhood. Another catfish species that share habitat with kampango takes advantage of the devoted brood caregivers by depositing their own eggs in the kampango’s nest. This freeloader, locally known as “Bombe” (Bathyclarias nyasensis), is also endemic to Lake Malawi. Bombe parasitizes B. meridionalis nests and takes advantage of the keen kampango’s brooding behaviour by having their young protected and fed by the Kampango couple. Although it has not been confirmed, it is suspected that bombe young normally hatch out ahead of the kampango offspring and eat the host’s eggs. This assumption is based on observations of parasitized Kampango nests holding almost exclusively bombe young still being protected and fed by Kampango adults.
Kampango, a Malawian fish delicacy
This catfish is highly prized for its taste. Malawian and Tanzanian people appreciate the delicious flavour of kampango and some fishermen even eat the catfish’s guts (with contents). Fresh kampango fillets are usually deep fried, barbecued, or prepared as a traditional Malawian dish with tomato and onion, and served with Nshima (a cornmeal product similar to bread).
Unfortunately, as it happens with many other highly valued fish species, Kampango is increasingly threatened by overfishing and water pollution and its population is decreasing, particularly in the southern part of Lake Malawi.
The brief video below shows fish species of Lake Malawi, including images of Kampango adults and their brood, and some interactions with other fish species in the lake (narrated in Arabic).
More about Kampango, Catfish, Lake malawi, parental care, Fish reproduction
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