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Vulture Catfish (Zamurito): Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Calophysus macropterus, commonly known as the Vulture Catfish or Zamurito, is a unique and intriguing species found in the vast river systems of South America. This remarkable fish, known for its distinctive scavenging behavior and adaptability, plays a vital role in its aquatic ecosystem.

In this article, we explore the various facets of the Vulture Catfish, from its taxonomy and physical characteristics to its behavior and conservation status. Our journey into the world of the zamurito offers a deeper understanding of this often overlooked but ecologically significant species.

The Vulture Catfish at a Glance


Superclass:Osteichthyes (Bony fish)
Species:C. macropterus

Essential Information

Average Size:30 to 50 cm (11.8 to 19.7 inches)
Average Weight:1 – 1.3 kg (2.2 – 2.9 lbs)
Average Lifespan:Estimated at 5 to 8 years
Geographical Range:Amazon and Orinoco River basins
Conservation Status:Not Evaluated

Species and Subspecies

As of current knowledge, Calophysus macropterus is not known to have any distinct subspecies. However, there is variability within the species based on geographical location. These variations are primarily in size and coloration, with some individuals exhibiting darker or more mottled patterns depending on their specific habitat.

This species, inhabiting both the Amazon and Orinoco basins, shows remarkable adaptability to different environmental conditions, which may account for some of the observed variations. Ongoing research may reveal more about the potential for subspecies or regional variants within this fascinating species.


The Vulture Catfish, Calophysus macropterus, presents a unique appearance among freshwater fish. Typically, they grow to about 30 to 50 cm (11.8 to 19.7 inches) in length. They exhibit a streamlined body with a dark, often mottled coloration that provides excellent camouflage in their murky river habitats.

One of the most distinctive features of the Vulture Catfish is its large, downturned mouth, adapted for scavenging. Additionally, they have long barbels around the mouth, which aid in sensing food in dark or turbid waters. There is no significant sexual dimorphism observed in this species; males and females are similar in size and appearance.

Habitat and Distribution

Calophysus macropterus is predominantly found in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins in South America. This includes a wide range of freshwater environments such as main river channels, floodplains, and occasionally in smaller tributaries.

The Vulture Catfish is well-adapted to life in turbid waters, often with low oxygen levels. This adaptability allows them to thrive in environments that may be challenging for other species, demonstrating remarkable resilience and ecological versatility.


The Vulture Catfish exhibits several interesting behaviors. They are primarily nocturnal, becoming more active during the night to feed and explore.

Calophysus macropterus is known to be a solitary species, with individuals typically encountered alone rather than in groups.There is limited information on specific communication methods for this species. However, like many catfish, they are likely to use a combination of tactile and chemical signals for interaction, particularly during the breeding season.

True to its name, the Vulture Catfish is a scavenger, feeding on dead or decaying matter in the water. This scavenging behavior is essential for the ecosystem, as they help in cleaning the aquatic environment. They are also known to consume smaller fish and invertebrates, showcasing their opportunistic feeding habits.

The behavior of the Vulture Catfish reflects its role as an important part of the riverine ecosystem, contributing to both the food chain and the health of its habitat.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

The diet of the Vulture Catfish, Calophysus macropterus, is characterized by a blend of scavenging and opportunistic hunting. As a scavenger, it plays a crucial role in the aquatic ecosystem by consuming dead and decaying matter, including fish and other aquatic animals.

This not only helps in maintaining the cleanliness of the river systems but also ensures the ecological balance by recycling nutrients. In addition to scavenging, the Vulture Catfish also exhibits opportunistic predatory behavior.

It preys on smaller fish and invertebrates, showcasing a flexible diet that adapts to the availability of food sources in its environment. This versatility in feeding habits is a key factor in the survival and success of this species in the diverse and dynamic river ecosystems of South America.


In the wild, the Vulture Catfish faces a range of natural predators, particularly during its early life stages. Juveniles are more vulnerable and are preyed upon by larger fish species and aquatic birds. As they grow, their size and nocturnal habits reduce the risk of predation, but they are not entirely immune.

Adult Vulture Catfish can fall prey to top aquatic predators like caimans and large piscivorous (fish-eating) birds. Human activities, such as fishing, also pose a significant threat to this species, although they are not typically targeted by commercial fisheries.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

The reproductive habits of Calophysus macropterus are not extensively documented, but available information suggests a seasonal breeding pattern, typically aligned with the rainy season when water levels are higher. This seasonal timing likely provides optimal conditions for the survival of offspring, including increased availability of food and shelter.

The specific mating rituals and breeding sites of the Vulture Catfish remain largely unknown. However, like many catfish, they are presumed to lay eggs. The exact duration of egg incubation is not well established but is likely to be in line with other similar freshwater species.

The number of offspring produced can vary, and the level of parental care, if any, is not well understood. In many catfish species, there is some degree of care provided to the eggs or young, but it’s unclear if this is the case with the Vulture Catfish.

The reproductive behavior and life cycle of Calophysus macropterus are areas where further research could yield interesting insights into the species’ ecology and behavior.

Conservation and Threats

The conservation status of the Vulture Catfish, Calophysus macropterus, is currently not well-defined, as the species has not been extensively studied in this context. However, like many freshwater species in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, it faces several environmental threats:

  • Habitat Loss: One of the primary concerns is habitat loss due to deforestation, dam construction, and pollution, which can significantly impact their living conditions and food sources.
  • Fishing Pressure: While not a primary target for commercial fishing, incidental capture and local fishing practices could impact their population.
  • Conservation Efforts: There are no specific conservation programs targeting the Vulture Catfish. However, broader conservation initiatives aimed at preserving Amazonian and Orinoco ecosystems indirectly benefit this species.

Understanding and mitigating these threats is crucial for the long-term survival of the Vulture Catfish, especially given the ecological significance of their scavenging role in riverine environments.

Fun Facts

  1. Role as a Scavenger: The Vulture Catfish gets its name from its scavenging habits, similar to how vultures behave on land. This unique feeding strategy is essential for the health of the aquatic ecosystems they inhabit.
  2. Surviving in Tough Conditions: This species can thrive in conditions that are challenging for many other fish, including waters with low oxygen levels and high turbidity.
  3. Nocturnal Activity: As a nocturnal species, the Vulture Catfish is most active under the cover of darkness, which aids in its survival and feeding efficiency.
  4. Sensory Adaptations: The long barbels around its mouth are not just for show; they are highly sensitive and help the fish detect food in dark, murky waters.
  5. Ecological Importance: By consuming decaying matter, the Vulture Catfish plays a crucial role in nutrient recycling in its habitat, making it an unsung hero of its ecosystem.

Frequently Asked Questions

How big do Vulture Catfish get?

Vulture Catfish typically grow to about 30 to 50 cm (11.8 to 19.7 inches) in length.

What do Vulture Catfish eat?

They are scavengers, primarily feeding on dead and decaying matter, but they also consume smaller fish and invertebrates.

Where can Vulture Catfish be found?

They are native to the Amazon and Orinoco River basins in South America.

Are Vulture Catfish dangerous to humans?

No, Vulture Catfish are not considered dangerous to humans.

How do Vulture Catfish help the environment?

By consuming decaying organic matter, they help maintain the cleanliness and balance of the aquatic ecosystems they inhabit.

Top image: Wikimedia Commons

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