Those Maddening Madtoms!
Of all the North American Fishes perhaps none has so frustrated efforts to be fully understood like the madtom family. Madtoms are very colorful catfishes of the Noturus genus with a little twist. They are absolutely tiny, a 5 inch madtom is a giant. As diminutive creatures they are very well suited for the home aquarium. If you could imagine the temperament of a bullhead in a tiny body you'd understand the madtoms. They are durable, colorful, fascinating, piggish little nocturnal beasts. I am unashamedly in love with them. To see those full-bellied madtoms greedily eating shrimp, crayfish or worms is a joy. These stout little guys push aside the sunfishes, killies and everyone else to get their ample portion. They belong among the fish most people commonly talk about. Instead they are anonymous to the world. A few of the stone cold serious catfish hobbyist like Lee Finley keep, discuss and defend the Madtoms but for the most part the are a phantom of the North American fauna.
With their anonymity has come apathy. With apathy has come neglect. With this neglect extinction looms over many members of this genus. So various federal and state agencies have been called together in a last ditch effort to domestically rear and perhaps save madtoms like the Neosho, Smoky and others who are on ecological life support of sorts. These professionals are scrambling to get life histories and to discover verifiable, repeatable spawning data of any madtom species, not just the endangered ones. All in hopes that they can apply that knowledge to endangered species propagation. Unfourtunately complete life histories and breeding data just are not there.
I know I have gotten a bit ahead of myself explaining the dire straights of the madtoms before telling you a bit more about them. It is just the survival of many of these unique and beautiful fish is truly in question and I am passionate about their conservation. How many species of madtoms will survive into the next century? Five, ten, twenty? Who knows? But our efforts today may very well tip the scales. We as aquarists can help in several ways. One is we can join a nonprofit conservation organization like the Nature Conservancy, Audobon Society, the Native Fish Conservancy or any other similar organization. Just by joining you are helping the cause. Your membership dues help in research, public education and land purchases. So join a conservation organization today.
Now let me fill you in a little more about madtoms. Madtoms are an American original. They come in a surprising variety of colors for catfish from the absolutely beautiful brindled madtoms to the more subtle tadpole madtoms. They occur over most of the eastern United States in small streams and mid-sized rivers every where. As I have already stated there are many unique local species that are in peril due to habitat degradation and their mysterious reproduction habits. However there are also many common species that the local aquarist should look into. Wonderful species like the tadpole and brindled madtoms as mentioned above. They are excellent for the home aquarium. Aquarists should right NOW be working with these common madtoms to discover the triggers to spawning. These triggers could then make spawning of the more difficult species a reality.
I have a simple plan that will allow you the serious aquarist to get involved in Madtom Mania. First off take a quick course in Madtom 101. Purchase, checkout or borrow a copy of Peterson's Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes by Larry Page & Brooks M. Burr. It is available on the web at the NFC Website (http://nativefish.interspeed.net ). The NFC gets a small percentage of the purchase price of every book, movie or CD purchased via their website, so I strongly recommend you support this nonprofit organization via your purchases. With this book you can identify common and uncommon local species to get you started. Then on the NFC website (see above) check into the Endangered threatened species list in the article section of the website. Second pick a common local species, check your state regulations then go collecting. In most eastern states a simple fishing license will allow you to collect common Madtom Species. I've found that a dip net and kicknettting , a process where you kick over rocks, small logs etc. in shallow creeks and streams while keeping a dipnet an arms length or so downstream is the best technique. The exposed fish naturally race downstream into the waiting net. It is a low impact way to collect darters, madtoms and the like. A word of caution madtoms like many catfish can deliver a painful sting with their fins so handel them accordingly or you will be screaming like a mad tomcat.
After dropping them into a bucket a quick field ID is in order. With the Peterson's Field Guide and a small aquarium net you can quickly identify the common species and throw the rest back. Now once collected Madtoms take very quickly to tank life. They will eat a variety of frozen and fresh foods. They love little nooks and crannies so I put small clay pots and rocks in all my Madtom tanks. The challenge for me and everyone else out there is can they be consistently spawned ? There are two schools of thought on the breeding of Madtoms and for that matter most temperate fish. One is that temperature is the predominate trigger to spawning. That means that a species must have a cool down period of 30 days or so where the tank temp drops below 50 degrees F then when the temperature rises to say 72 F. spawning occurs. The other theory is environmental triggers control spawning. For instance many Sunfish will readily spawn when they are fed heavily and are exposed to an 18 hour a day photo period. What triggers Madtom's , no one can say for sure. They seem an oxymoron , impossible to breed by the most qualified of the professional's. Yet here's the kicker . There are several legitimate reports out there of amateur individuals successfully spawning and raising a batch of tadpole madtoms once and never again. There results are poorly documented and thus they just cant seem be repeated. So the life histories remain unfulfilled.
Finally at any time during your Madtom Adventure share your results. I have no preference as to how you share your results I just care that you share. Write up your info , put it in a publication or put it on the web any way you can. For example the Native Fish Conservancy has a huge article data base. Write up what you find out the good, the bad and the ugly we will put it on the website www.nativefish.org . Contact the NFC president at president at nativefish_org with your articles/data about the temperate fishes. Every little bit helps. Perhaps you'd like to get real serious about this Madtom thing. Then join the NFC http://www.nativefish.org as a NFC Breeders club member you can acquire fish , share data and work in a team approach to solve the Madtom mystery. The Breeders Club contact is Bill Duzen email theduuz at aol_com The key to unlocking this mystery is gonna take a cordinated team effort. Organizations, individuals and Universities are going to have to share information , partner when possible and not keep secrets. It seems that the more difficult a fish is to breed the more unwilling people are to share their hard earned information with the outside world. It in effect becomes a race for credit instead of a race for conservation. That nonsence will have to stop. The Job is to important, the need is to dire by working together we can solve the riddle that is the Maddening Madtoms. Until next time good luck and good fishing.