Introduction: Morphotypes of native catfish of the genus Ictalurus (Siluriformes: Ictaluridae) are known to occur in allopatry in the northern Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, with only the Yaqui catfish (Ictalurus pricei) taxonomically described. Recent genetic analysis of these morphotypes has revealed the monophyly of the I. pricei complex, which indicates Ictalurus sp. from the Culiacán River and San Lorenzo River basins as its nearest genetic relative and recognizes as an evolutionarily significant unit the Culiacán River and San Lorenzo River morphotypes. Objective: To compare the meristic and morphometric characteristics of the catfish of the Culiacán River basin with its nearest genetic relative, the Yaqui catfish, in order to determine the presence of distinctive morphological characters that support genetic evidence previously reported for these morphotypes. Methods: Catfish specimens were collected during various field expeditions (1990-2012) to remote sites of the Sierra Madre Occidental and conducted in the Yaqui River and Culiacán River basins with the purpose of morphological comparison. Forty-five morphological characters (40 morphometric and five meristic) were examined in 76 adult specimens – 52 Ictalurus sp. and 24 Ictalurus pricei. Three groups were subject to a discriminant function analysis (DFA), including two Ictalurus sp. groups from the Humaya River and Tamazula River sub-basins, representing the Culiacán River basin, and one I. pricei group representing the Yaqui River basin. The standardized measurements and meristic data of the catfish morphotypes were compared by means of DFA. Results: The DFA revealed 12 characters to be significantly different (P < 0.01) among the groups compared. The morphological characters separating the Ictalurus sp. (Culiacán River basin) from the Yaqui catfish were associated with lower anal, pelvic and pectoral fin ray numbers, shorter head and predorsal lengths, shorter longest lateral barbel and longest dorsal ray lengths and a narrower premaxilar dentary plate; and finally longer distances in Ictalurus sp. for dorsal-fin origin to last anal-fin ray base and dorsal-fin origin to posterior end of the adipose fin base. The standardized coefficients for canonical variables 1 and 2 accounted for 85.6 % and 14.4 % of the total variation, respectively. Conclusions: The distinctive morphological characters of the Ictalurus sp. found in the Culiacán River basin, combined with the known mitochondrial evidence for this morphotype, identify it as an evolutionarily significant unit that requires description as a new species based on taxonomical protocols.

Keywords: morphometrics, meristics, Río Culiacán catfish, evolutionarily significant unit, northwestern Mexico