Facts about the animal kingdom

What Are Lungfish? Characteristics and Examples

Ana Diaz Maqueda
By Ana Diaz Maqueda, Biologist specialized in ethology. May 21, 2024
What Are Lungfish? Characteristics and Examples

Imagine a fish that can breathe air and survive out of water! That's the incredible lungfish, a rare and ancient group that defies expectations. Found in the Southern Hemisphere's freshwater habitats, these "primitive" fish boast a unique biology that allows them to thrive in both aquatic and semiaquatic environments. In fact, their lobed fins, with a bony internal structure similar to limbs, might have played a role in the development of limbs in amphibians.

In this AnimalWised article, we'll explore what lungfish are, their unique respiratory system, delve into their prehistoric past, and introduce you to some of the most interesting members of this group.

  1. Lungfish taxonomy
  2. Characteristics of lungfish
  3. How do lungfish breathe?
  4. Examples of lungfish

Lungfish taxonomy

Lungfish, also known as dipnoans, are a group of fish classified within the class Sarcopterygii, which includes fish with lobed or fleshy fins. Lungfish are an ancient group of fish that have been around for over 350 million years! They represent an evolutionary link between fish and land vertebrates.

The taxonomic relationships of lungfish with other fish groups are subject to ongoing debate among researchers. If the current classification is accurate, lungfish are believed to be closely related to Tetrapodomorpha, the group of animals that gave rise to tetrapod vertebrates.

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Class: Sarcopterygii
  • Subclass: Dipnoi

Presently, there are indeed six recognized species of lungfish, categorized into two families: Lepidosirenidae and Ceratodontidae.

  • Lepidosirenids consist of two genera, Protopterus in Africa with four living species, and Lepidosiren in South America, which has a single species.

  • The Cerantodontidae family includes only one species, Neoceratodus fosteri, found in Australia, which is considered the most primitive living lungfish.

Lungfish are most closely related to the coelacanths (another group of lobe-finned fish) and share a common ancestor with tetrapods (land vertebrates).

Want to learn more about lungfish? Our next article dives into how fish reproduce, including the strategies used by lungfish themselves.

Characteristics of lungfish

The defining characteristic of lungfish is their ability to breathe both air and water. This unique feature, thanks to their possession of both gills and lungs, allows them to survive out of water for extended periods, unlike most fish. In fact, lungfish are obligate air breathers, meaning they require air to survive. Let's explore some of their other fascinating characteristics:

  • As mentioned, lungfish possess lobed fins, a distinguishing feature from other fish. Their vertebral column extends to the end of the body, where two skin folds develop, serving as fins.

  • Adult lungfish have two functional lungs, which develop from the ventral wall at the end of the pharynx. Although they also possess gills, these are responsible for only about 2% of the adult fish's respiration. During their larval stages, lungfish rely on their gills for breathing.
  • While lungfish do have nostrils, they do not use them for breathing air. Instead, their nostrils serve an olfactory function. Their body is covered in tiny scales embedded within the skin.

  • Lungfish are oviparous, with males assuming the responsibility of caring for the offspring.

  • Lungfish are considered living fossils due to their primitive features, which have remained relatively unchanged for millions of years.

  • Lungfish are known for their longevity, with some species capable of living for several decades, even up to a hundred years or more in some cases.

  • In addition to surviving dry seasons through hibernation or torpor, lungfish can also enter a state of aestivation during periods of extreme heat or drought. During aestivation, they burrow into the mud and reduce their metabolic rate to conserve energy.

  • Lungfish are proficient burrowers, using their muscular bodies and strong fins to dig into the substrate. This behavior allows them to seek refuge during unfavorable environmental conditions and avoid predators.

  • While lungfish are primarily nocturnal feeders, they may also exhibit opportunistic feeding behavior during the day. Their diet typically consists of small aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, and sometimes plant matter.

  • Lungfish employ various reproductive strategies depending on the species and environmental conditions. Some species lay eggs in nests constructed by the male, while others may scatter their eggs across the substrate or carry them in specialized pouches.

  • Lungfish are found in freshwater habitats across several continents, including Africa, South America, and Australia. Each species has adapted to its specific environmental niche, leading to variations in behavior, morphology, and physiology.

Lungfish adaptations: fins for swimming, lungs for breathing. But what about their body covering? Explore the diversity of fish scales, including those of lungfish, in our next article.

How do lungfish breathe?

Lungfish possess two lungs and a circulatory system with two circuits. Their lungs are specialized organs with internal ridges and septa, enhancing the surface area for gas exchange. These organs are also highly vascularized, facilitating efficient exchange of gases between the lungs and the bloodstream.

In terms of their breathing mechanism, lungfish utilize buccal pumping. This involves the movement of their mouths and associated structures to draw air into and expel it from their lungs. While breathing air, lungfish close their mouths and use a pumping action to move air in and out of their lungs.

Unlike most fish, lungfish lack opercula, the bony structures covering the gills. Instead, they typically have a spiracle located behind the eye. However, during aerial respiration (breathing air), the spiracle remains closed.

Examples of lungfish

Lungfish are represented by six recognized species, grouped into two families: Lepidosirenidae and Ceratodontidae. Let us take a closer look at each one:

African Lungfish (Protopterus spp.)

African lungfish are found in freshwater habitats across Africa. They have elongated bodies, typically reaching lengths of 30 to 100 centimeters, although some species can grow larger.

South American Lungfish (Lepidosiren paradoxa)

Found in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins of South America, the South American lungfish is the sole representative of its genus. It possesses elongated bodies and can grow up to 125 centimeters in length. Similar to African lungfish, it has the ability to aestivate during dry seasons.

Australian Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri)

Endemic to Australia, the Australian lungfish is the most primitive living lungfish species. It inhabits freshwater rivers and lakes along the eastern coast of Australia. Australian lungfish are known for their distinctive appearance, with elongated bodies and paired fins resembling limbs. They can reach lengths of up to 150 centimeters and are considered living fossils due to their ancient lineage.

Marbled Lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus)

Also known as the East African lungfish, this species is found in East Africa, including Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. Marbled lungfish have elongated bodies with mottled coloration, reaching lengths of up to 90 centimeters.

West African Lungfish (Protopterus annectens)

Found in West Africa, including countries like Nigeria and Cameroon, the West African lungfish prefers freshwater habitats such as rivers, streams, and floodplains. It has a slender body with a length ranging from 30 to 60 centimeters. Like other lungfish species, it has the ability to aestivate during dry periods by burrowing into mud.

Gilled African Lungfish (Protopterus amphibius)

Also known as the dwarf African lungfish, this species is native to Central and West Africa, including countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, and Gabon. It inhabits slow-moving freshwater habitats such as swamps, marshes, and small streams. Gilled African lungfish have a smaller body size compared to other lungfish species, typically reaching lengths of up to 30 centimeters. They possess gills throughout their lives and lack the ability to aestivate like other lungfish species.

Lungfish defy expectations with their lungs. But they're not the only residents of freshwater! Explore the many types of fish that thrive in freshwater ecosystems, including lungfish, in our next article.

What Are Lungfish? Characteristics and Examples - Examples of lungfish

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What Are Lungfish? Characteristics and Examples