Fish Embryo Development Stages

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. October 17, 2018
Fish Embryo Development Stages

During the embryonic development of any animal, crucial processes are carried out so that the new individual can form correctly. Any failure, corruption or error during this process can cause serious damage to the progeny, including death of the unborn embryo. The embryo is the early stage of the development which occurs after fertilization, e.g. when an egg is fertilized with sperm.

Fish embryo development is something which is used by many schools and educational facilities to help understand this process in general. This is because fish eggs are transparent and can be more easily observed using microscopes or other magnifying equipment. Here AnimalWised explains some of the concepts around this process by providing information on fish embryo development stages.

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Basic embryology

To better understand the different stages of fish embryo development, we should provide some background on basic embryology concepts. These include understanding different egg types and the phases which make up early embryonic development.

Different eggs are often differentiated by how much yolk is contained within and how it is distributed. The yolk is the part of the egg which provides nutrients to allow the embryo to survive. Some eggs do not contain yolk as they get their nutrition from other food sources such as a parasite feeding off a host body. The yolk is scientifically known as the vitellus, which might be helpful as we often think of yolks being those which belong to chicken or duck eggs. As we said above, the embryo forms from the union of an egg (or ovum) and the spermatozoa.

Types of eggs based on yolk distribution:

  • Isolecithal eggs: the yolk is uniformly distributed throughout the interior of the egg. It is typical in cnidarians (such as jellyfish or coral), echinoderms (such as sea urchins), nemerteans (ribbon worms) and mammals (including humans).
  • Telolecithal eggs: the yolk is contained within one pole of the egg in an uneven distribution. It is separate from the embryo. Most animals will develop their embryo from these types of egg, e.g. molluscs, amphibians, reptiles and birds. The fish embryo will also develop from this type of egg.
  • Centrolecithal eggs: as the name suggests, the yolk is held within the center of the egg. Cytoplasm surrounds the yolk which, in turn, surrounds the nucleus which will give rise to the embryo. It occurs in arthropods.

Types of eggs based on amount of yolk:

  • Alecithal eggs: these are small and contain little yolk.
  • Mesolecithal eggs: of a medium size and with a moderate amount of yolk.
  • Macrolecithal eggs: large eggs with a corresponding large amount of yolk.

Typical phases of embryonic development:

  • Segmentation: during this phase a series of cell divisions take place that increase the size of the number of cells necessary for the second phase. This ends in a state called the blastula which is a hollow sphere of cells carved out my segmentation.
  • Gastrulation: a reorganization of the cells of the blastula takes place giving rise to blastoderms (primitive germ layers). The primary layers are the ectoderm, endoderm and, in some animals, the mesoderm.
  • Differentiation and organogenisis: the tissues and organs will be formed from the germ layers, fixing the structure of the new individual being formed.
Fish Embryo Development Stages - Basic embryology


Temperature is closely related to the incubation time of fish eggs and fish embryo development[1]. The same occurs in other species. There is usually an optimal temperature range for incubation which can vary within a range of about 8 ºC (46.4 ºF).

In fish reproduction, eggs which hatch within this optimum incubation range will have a greater chance of developing well and reaching the hatching stage. Likewise, eggs incubated for a long period of time at extreme temperatures (those outside the optimum range for the species) will have a lower probability of a fish embryo forming. If they do, individuals born will have a greater chance of suffering from serious anomalies.

Embryonic development stages of fish

Now that you know some of the basic concepts of embryology, we can look at the specifics of fish embryo development stages. Fish are within the telolecithal egg category. This means their yolks are displaced to a different pole of the egg than that of the fish embryo. Here is how the phases break up:

Zygotic phase

The newly fertilized egg remains in the zygote stage until the first division. The approximate time in which this split takes place depends on the species and the corresponding optimal incubation temperature. In the zebrafish (Danio rerio), the first segmentation occurs about 40 minutes after fertilization. Although it seems that in this period there are no obvious chnages (the zebrafish is one of the fish most often used in research), decisive processes are taking place inside the egg for further development.

Segmentation phase

The egg enters the segmentation phase when the first division of the zygote occurs. In fish, the segmentation is meroblastic. This is where the division does not occur throughout the entire egg as it is prevented by the yolk. Instead it is limited to the area where the fish embryo is located. The first divisions are vertical and horizontal to the embryo. These divisions occur very quickly and synchronously. They give rise to a mound of cells which settle on the yolk, constituting the blastodisc.

Gastrulation phrase

During the gastrulation phase, a rearrangement of the cells of the embryonic disk takes place via morphogenetic movements. This is the information contained in the nuclei of the different cells which have already been formed. They are transcribed in a way that forces the cells to obtain a new configuration space. in the case of fish, this reorganization is termed involution[2]. Likewise the stage is characterized by a decrease in the rate of cell division with little or no cell growth.

During the involution, some cells of the blastodisc migrate towards the yolk to form a layer on top. This layer is known as the endoderm. The layer of cells which remains on the mound will form the ectoderm. At the end of the process, the gastrula will become defined and form the epiblast which results in the two primary germ layers[3]. This germ layers are collectively known as blastoderms and consist of the ectoderm and endoderm.

Differentiation and organogenesis

During the differentation phase in fish, the third embryonic layer appears. This is located between the endoderm and ectoderm and is known as the mesoderm.

The endoderm invaginates (folds into a pouch) forming a cavity known as the archenteron. The entrance to this cavity will be called the blastopore and it results in the anus of the fish. From this point, we can distinguish the cephalic vesicle (the part which forms the brain) and, on both sides, the optic vesicles (forming the eyes). After the cephalic vesicle, the neural tube will form and somites will be created on either side. These structures will end up forming the the bones of the fish as well as muscles and other organs.

So, throughout the fish embryo development stage, each germ layer will begin the production of several organs or tissues:


  • Epidermis and nervous system
  • Beginning and end of the digestive tract


  • Dermis
  • Musculature, excretory organs and reproducers
  • Celoma, peritoneum and circulatory system


  • Organs involved in digestion: internal epithelium of the digestive tract and related glands
  • Organs in charge of gas exchange
Fish Embryo Development Stages - Embryonic development stages of fish

Are fish viviparous or oviparous?

Another important factor of the fish embryo development stage is how they are fed by the mother. Humans are viviparous which means they develop inside the mother and are fed directly (through the umbilical cord). In the majority of fish, however, they are oviparous. This means they lay eggs and the fish embryo develops for the most part outside of the mother. This means they are more vulnerable to predators, but it also means the mother doesn't need to stay near the spawn. Viviparous fish do exist, but are in the overwhelming minority. They include some species of shark such as lemon shark as well as fish species like the splitfin.

If you want to read similar articles to Fish Embryo Development Stages, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

  • Del Río, V., Rosas, J., Velásquez, A. &, Cabrera, T. (2005). Desarrollo embrionario-larval y tiempo de metamorfosis del pez tropical Xenomelaniris brasiliensis (Pisces: Atherinidae). Rev. Biol. Trop. Vol. 53 (3-4): 503-513
  • Gilbert, S.F. (2010). Developmental Biology, Ninth Edition.
  • Gordillo Jiménez, Luisa Fernanda. (2017). ESTUDIO DEL DESARROLLO EMBRIONARIO DEL PEZ Amatitlania nigrofasciata (PERCIFORMES: Cichlidae). Proyecto de Trabajo de Grado para optar al título de Licenciado en Biología. Universidad Distrital Francisco José De Caldas Facultad De Ciencias Y Educación Proyecto Curricular De Licenciatura En Biología Bogotá D.C.
  • Kimmel, C. B., Ballard, W. W., Kimmel, S. R., Ullmann, B., And Schilling, T. F. (1995). Stages of Embryonic Development of the Zebrafish. Developmental Dynamics 203:255-310.

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