Lungfish: Astonishing Air-Breathing Wonder

Lungfish The Astonishing Fish That Breathes Air

The contemporary lungfish is the result of a long-standing ancestry dating back about 370 million years. This living fossil is every now and then called primitive, nonetheless, that doesn’t imply that its features undeveloped – it’s changed little since its first evolution. The most distinctive feature that outshine the other species is the presence of internal lung which plays multiple roles. While swimming, the lung provides buoyancy just like the swim bladder in other fish, but it absorbs oxygen and removes waste as well.

KingdomPhylumClassOrderScientific NameNo. of Species
Taxonomic Classification of Lungfish (Dipnoi)

Origin and Evolution

As the matter with lungfish’s origin and evolution, notwithstanding their ancient lineage, the species have survived through various geological periods and continue to provide groundbreaking insights into the history of life on Earth and the evolutionary transition from water to land.

Early Devonian Origins

Around 370 million years back in time, the lungfish’s origin can be traced back to the early Devonian period. In the course of this time, they emerged as a matchless class of fish having remarkable adaptations that let them survive in both terrestrial and aquatic environments.

Ancestral Links to Tetrapods

In the study of vertebrates’ evolution, the species hold particular place as they’re recognized among the closest living near and dear ones to tetrapods – the group that encompasses reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. Their close bond offers vital insights into the metamorphosing from aquatic to terrestrial life and the progression of land-dwelling vertebrates.

Adaptations and the Lung-Like Organ

As salamander fish – the other name of lungfish – attuned to the ever-changing circumstances of the Devonian period, they developed a sophisticated respiratory system. The very transformation cause the development of their unparalleled lung-like organ empowering them to breathe air.


The lungfish’s distribution – a fish that breathes air – is comparatively sparse and limited to particular region across the world. These freshwater fish are conscious of inhabiting multiple continents, encompassing Africa, South America and Australia.

Africa particularly Nile and Congo River systems host these species. In South America, the fish can be found in the Amazon River basin and other water bodies in continent’s northern regions.

Australia hosts its own species of this fish, recognized as the Queensland lungfish or Australian lungfish. Chiefly, they can be located in freshwater rivers and lakes along the eastern cost of Australia.


Continents Australia, South America, and Africa
Countries Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, Zambia, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Australia
Bio-geographical RealmsAfrotropical realm, Neotropical realm, Australasian realm
Biome Rivers, swamps and lakes
Climate ZonesTropical, subtropical, and equatorial


In the connection with lungfish’s population, 4 out of 6 species inhabit Africa, while another species is common in Queensland, Australia. The sole species in the Western Hemisphere inhabit a relatively small portion of the Amazon basin near Paraguay.

Until about 200 million years back, the species were quite populated around the world, afterwards, a shrinkage was recorded. The most part of the remaining species alive today is out of danger of extinction. As per the IUCN Red List, contemporarily, the four African species are indexed as “least concern”, on the flip side, only the Queensland lungfish is “endangered”.


When it comes to the lungfish’s habitat, the ability to survive in an extended range of aquatic environments is what they’re known for. Let’s dive into the striking insights pertaining to the habitat preferences of these species.

Freshwater and Brackish Habitats

Albeit, the fish are chiefly located in freshwater habitats, including rivers, lakes and ponds, some species are apparent to live in brackish waters – a mix of saltwater and freshwater. The versatility in habitat preferences enable them to occupy different ecological niches.

Oxygen-Poor Environments

What makes these fish conspicuous from the rest of species is their knack to breath air. The fish can gulp air at the water’s surface, filling their lung-like swim bladder with air in the environments where oxygen levels are low or stationary. Extracting oxygen from this air, they survive even in oxygen-deprived waters.

Burrowing Behavior

Salamander fish have developed a striking adaptation to tackle the extreme conditions, like drought or shrinking water bodies. Some species of the fish are capable of burrowing deep into the sand or mud at the bottom of their habitat during periods of uncomplimentary conditions. Creating a protective cocoon regarded as a “mucus cocoon”, they remain latent until the circumstances become more favorable.

Seasonal Migrations

Owing to the variations in environmental conditions, these creatures undertake seasonal migrations. During the dry season or when water bodies start shrinking, their migrations occur.

Tropical and Subtropical Regions

The species are mainly located in tropical and subtropical regions where plentiful vegetation and warm temperatures offer them ideal conditions for endurance. A number of Salamander fish species home to Africa, South America and Australia, each adapted to their particular habitat conditions. Inhabiting both water and land, the lungfish possesses remarkable amphibious qualities, providing a unique contrast to the hammerhead shark’s marine dominance.


Lungfish appearance

Dating back millions of years, the lungfishes belong to an ancient lineage regarded as Sarcopterygii. The presence of a complex muscular and bone structure in the fins is among the most distinctive features of the species – a type of lob-fished fish. These creatures reaching up to a length of 7 feet weigh almost 40 pounds, even an average species grows to 4 feet weighing up to 22 pounds.

Pectoral and Pelvic Fins

These creatures possess sophisticated pectoral and pelvic fins, which are homologous to the limbs of tetrapods. Their lobed fins having skeletal elements and muscular structures provide flexibility and support, making them capable of walking or crawling across the substrate in shallow waters.

External Gills in Juveniles

During their early developmental stages, these species possess the characteristic of external gills which enable them to extract oxygen from the water before their lung-like swim bladder becomes completely operational.

Aestivation Scales

In particular species, aestivation – a timespan of dormancy during dry conditions – is a salient survival strategy. During this period, they develop sophisticated aestivation scales that shield their bodies, serving as protective armor against the harsh surroundings.

Diverse Coloration

These creatures showcase an extended color patterns and markings, different from mottled shades of brown and green to more vivacious patterns. The very distinction in coloration is assumed to serve purposes, like camouflage, thermoregulation or communication.


TongueWell-developed, aids in food manipulation
ClawsFound in some species for movement on land
Mouth Adapted for suction and crushing various foods
JawStrong and robust, allowing for a diverse diet
Teeth Conical with sharp edges, used for grasping and grinding
Nose Pair of nostrils for olfaction and scent detection
FeetModified fins aid in movement on land or mud
Skeleton Bony with a protective vertebral column

Reproduction and Life Cycles

As the matter with the lungfish’s reproduction, it varies by region and genus. Queensland and South American lungfishes are distinct from the African lungfishes and each other.

African Lungfish

At the beginning of the rainy season and at the end of winter, these species spawn. After a week, there emerges the larvae with bright red fan-like external gills, assisting them breath until their lungs are completely developed. It’s up to the male to protect the young in his nest until the latter are independent.

South American Lungfish

The nest of these species are even more elaborate embracing a sole vertical opening and a horizontal chamber at the bottom. In the spawning season, the male safeguard the nest and develops little tufts which discharge oxygen into the water to let the larvae breathe in their first few days of life before they’ve developed lungs.

Australian Lungfish

The nature of this type differs in the sense that they don’t create burrow at all; in lieu of that, it lays eggs among plants. The larvae, similar to the adults, possess internal gills to breathe on their own.

Mating Habits

Mating BehaviorCourtship displays and behaviors for mate attraction
Reproduction SeasonDuring the rainy season or favorable water conditions
Baby CarryingMale fish guard and aerate the eggs
Independent AgeBaby fish become independent after hatching


Lungfish’s lifestyle, actually a fascinating one, is shaped by their competence to survive and thrive in diverse aquatic environments.

Lungfish Lifestyle

Respiration and Aestivation

The dual respiratory system of these creatures really stands out, letting them breathe both air and water. When oxygen level is low, these species gulp air at the water’s surface, filling their lung-like swim bladder for resourceful air exchange. Burrowing into mud or sand and secreting a safeguarding mucus cocoon, some species enter aestivation during dry or drought conditions.

Feeding Habits

With a distinct diet, these creatures are opportunistic feeders, typically consuming small aquatic invertebrates and insects, while adults may have larger prey, including small fish, crustaceans or even vegetation. They’re capable of shifting between carnivorous and herbivorous diets permits them to adapt to their environmental changes.

Social Behavior

During the breeding season, some species of the fish showcase social behavior. To lure females for mating, males construct territories or establish nests. Notwithstanding, outside the breeding period, in particular, the species lead solitary lives.


In the connection with the lungfish’s lifespan, the species is considered a particularly long-lived fish, with the approximation that some species’ lifespan is of 100 years. In 1933, a Queensland lungfish called Granddad – which inhabit the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago – was acquired and euthanized in 2017 thanks to worsening health conditions. It grabbed the attention of more than 100 million visitors in its lifespan.

Prey and Diet

Built upon their life stages and availability of food sources, the creatures display a diverse and devious diet. Juvenile lungfish, normally, devour tiny aquatic invertebrates and insects, including worms, crustaceans and insect larvae. As they mature, an expansion occurs to encompass larger prey, like small fish and amphibians. In addition to this, some species may consume plant material, such as algae, aquatic vegetation and detritus, manifesting their adaptability as herbivorous feeders when indispensable.

Threats and Conservation

With a heavy heart, it is stated that due to human activates and environmental changes, salamander fish are facing multiple threats. The factors posing a threat to their survival include water pollution, destruction of their habitats, overfishing and weather change.

To safeguard their habitats and tackle the threats they face, conservation efforts have been initiated. Multiple species have been tagged as endangered or least concerned on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Relationship with Humans

Owing to their unparalleled adaptations and priorities for particular aquatic habitats, the species have confined direct commercial or economic prominence to human populations. Despite the fact, the regions where the fish are located my hold ecological and cultural value. From time to time, they’ve become subjects of scientific research, unfolding insights into evolutionary history and aquatic adaptations.

The Rundown and Fun Facts

Common NameLungfish
Other Name(s) Salamander fish
Number of Species 6
Lifespan More than 20 years
Weight Up to 37 lbs
Length Up to 7 feet
Predator Predatory birds, large fish, reptiles and humans
Prey / FoodWorms, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, plants, and other fish
Most Distinctive FeatureModified lungs for buoyancy, breathing, and waste extraction


The diet of Salamander fish includes worms, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, plants, as well as other lungfish.

The Salamander fish primarily relies on its lungs for breathing. These lungs are connected to a vast network of small blood vessels. Due to the underdeveloped gills, the majority of lungfish species must regularly come up to the water’s surface to breathe. For instance, the African lungfish resurfaces approximately every 30 minutes on average, while the Australian lungfish, which also uses its gills for breathing, only needs to surface every 40 to 50 minutes.

By producing a protective mucous secretion, the Salamander fish can endure periods of over a year outside of water, preventing it from drying out.

The Salamander fish can survive extended periods outside of water, lasting over a year, by generating a protective mucous secretion that prevents it from drying out.

Salamander fish are classified within the Sarcopterygii class.

The order Dipnoi is where Salamander fish can be classified.

Salamander fish have scales that cover their bodies.

Mudassar Ahmad

He is a seasoned blogger since 2012 and an M.Phil graduate in English Linguistics. He captivates readers with his eloquent prose and insightful perspectives. His passion for language and dedication to crafting compelling content make him a trusted voice in the online sphere. Explore the world through Ahmad's literary lens.

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