Tabloid Science: Attack of the Maneating Catfish

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Biologist Jeremy Wade with goonch and local fishermen. photo from Nature Shock.

If London’s SUN is to be believed, a giant Asian catfish known as the Goonch has mutated into a maneater, after developing a taste for the human remnants dumped from riverside funeral pyres. Based on a new documentary being aired on Britain's Channel 5 television, the behemoth catfish tale has just enough plausibility to focus new interest on a species occasionally makes its way into home aquariums.

The recently published tabloid article by Emma Cox leads off proclaiming: "A FEARSOME mutant fish has started killing people after feeding on human corpses, scientists fear," under a headline of "Humans scoffed by mutant fish." (Scoff being British/Canadian slang for gobble.)

Tracking the Goonch for the show Nature Shock, biologist Jeremy Wade presents ichthyological scare story, complete with needle-toothed monsters from the deep that may have risen from bottom scavengers to apex predators.

Folk Theory

Along the Great Kali River, flowing between India and Nepal, some villagers told Wade that they believe a "monster" dwells in their midst. Their theory is that it has evolved from eating prawns to a killer with an acquired taste for humans.

Wade with Goonch, showing formidable teeth, used to catch river prawns. Photo.

According to Wade's interview in the SUN: “The locals have told me of a theory that this monster has grown extra large on a diet of partially burnt corpses. It has perhaps got this taste for flesh by feasting on remains of funeral pyres. There will be a few freak individuals that grow bigger than the other ones and if you throw in extra food, they will grow even bigger.”

While there are also crocodiles in these waters, Jeremy lays the blame of attacks on humans to the toothy Goonch lurking offshore. As part of the television exploration, his team caught a claimed world-record Goonch weighing in at 161 lbs. (73 kg). “If that got hold of you, there’d be no getting away," he quipped.


Poorly documented reports of people being grabbed by mysterious aquatic creatures date back to 1988, when a 17-year-old Nepalese youth bathing in shallow water was attacked and pulled underwater by an unseen animal. The scene was repeated a few months later, when a small boy was taken to an unknown fate by an aquatic predator.

The latest fatality occurred last year, when an 18-year-old Nepali was hit from beneath and carried down by a creature one witnessed said looked like "an elongated pig."

Biologists are skeptical of some of these yarns, and there is unanimity in their disclaiming that the goonch has somehow "mutated" into a maneating monster. Whether one or more renegade individuals have developed an aberrant taste for humans is not beyond the boundaries of plausibility. Nature is full of surprises, but these require research and proof before being swallowed hook-line-and-sinker. For a reality check, Fishbase experts classify the Goonch as "harmless" and "sluggish."

This is a fish with the size, strength, and teeth to be a frightful threat in the water, but it is a leap to believe that the species has moved from feeding on relatively small river crustaceans to full-scale humans.

The Channel Nature Shock may be viewed online. Watch your local aquarium shop for the rare but sometimes seen baby Goonch, which sometimes arrives among "assorted Asian catfishes."

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