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Like other ostariophysans, they are characterized by the presence of a Weberian apparatus.

In some catfish, the skin is covered in bony plates called scutes; some form of body armor appears in various ways within the order.

Flathead catfish, Pylodictis olivaris, is also a North American pest on Atlantic slope drainages.

A flattened head allows for digging through the substrate as well as perhaps serving as a hydrofoil.

As a defense, these spines may be locked into place so that they stick outwards, which can inflict severe wounds.

In members of the family Plotosidae, and of the genus Heteropneustes, this protein is so strong it may hospitalize humans who are unfortunate enough to receive a sting; in Plotosus lineatus, the stings may result in death.

As far as known for most catfish, features that are often characteristic of species such as mouth and fin positions, fin shapes, and barbel lengths show little difference between juveniles and adults.

For many species, pigmentation pattern is also similar in juveniles and adults.

Catfish may have up to four pairs of barbels: nasal, maxillary (on each side of mouth), and two pairs of chin barbels, even though pairs of barbels may be absent depending on the species. Many larger catfish also have chemoreceptors across their entire bodies, which means they "taste" anything they touch and "smell" any chemicals in the water.Finally, the lateral armor of doradids, Sisor, and hoplomyzontines consists of hypertrophied lateral line ossicles with dorsal and ventral lamina.All catfish, except members of Malapteruridae (electric catfish), possess a strong, hollow, bony leading spine-like ray on their dorsal and pectoral fins.Some have a mouth that can expand to a large size and contains no incisiform teeth; catfish generally feed through suction or gulping rather than biting and cutting prey.However, some families, notably Loricariidae and Astroblepidae, have a suckermouth that allows them to fasten themselves to objects in fast-moving water.

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"In catfish, gustation plays a primary role in the orientation and location of food".

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