lungfish, (subclass Dipnoi), any member of a group of six species of living air-breathing fishes and several extinct relatives belonging to the class Sarcopterygii and characterized by the possession of either one or two lungs. The Dipnoi first appeared in the Early Devonian Epoch (about 419.2 million to 393.3 million years ago), and the extant species occur in rivers and lakes in Africa, South America, and Australia. These animals are especially interesting because of their characteristic body forms, generally large size, disjunct distribution over Earth’s tropical regions, and peculiar mode of life.
General features, Living and fossil forms of Dipnoi fishes.
Most species grow to substantial size. The Australian lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri, may weigh up to 10 kg (about 22 pounds) and grow to a length of 1.25 metres (about 4 feet). Of the African lungfishes, the yellow marbled Ethiopian species, Protopterus aethiopicus, is the largest, growing to a length of 2 metres (about 7 feet). The South American species, Lepidosiren paradoxa, reaches a length of 1.25 metres (about 4 feet).
The distribution of the Dipnoi strikingly parallels that of the unrelated osteoglossomorph fishes, another freshwater group. The Australian lungfish occurs in a very small region of Australia—in the marshes of Queensland, along Burnett River and St. Mary’s River. Four species of Protopterus occur in Africa, where they are chiefly concentrated in the equatorial belt but occur as far north as Senegal and as far south as Mozambique. Within their areas of distribution, the African protopterids are abundant along the riverbanks, in submerged areas with plant cover, and in lakes. L. paradoxa, the South American lungfish, is widely distributed in that continent. It is especially numerous and often associated with the eel-like synbranchiform Synbranchus marmoratus in the shallow and muddy watercourses of the Chaco River in Paraguay and in neighbouring areas.
The economic importance of the lungfishes is slight. Only in certain parts of Africa, because of their abundance and size, are they of any value to humans as food. They are obtained from the mud of dried river bottoms. The South American lungfish, which is obtained in the same manner, is eaten locally.
Reproduction and life cycle
The African lungfishes spawn in the last half of winter, the onset of the rainy season. Protopterus species build a nest in the form of a pit on the bottom of a watercourse. The egg is about 3.5 to 4 mm (about 0.14 inch) in diameter, and the tiny larvae emerge a week after the eggs are laid. The larvae have long, bright red, tuftlike or fanlike external gills, which they use for breathing until the lungs are fully developed. The young at first remain in the nest under the protection of the male.
The South American lungfishes dig a nest in the bottom in the form of a vertical passage, which frequently turns horizontally at the bottom. The male remains in the nest and guards the brood. During the spawning season, the pelvic fins of the male develop numerous tuft-shaped growths filled with small blood vessels (capillaries). These growths are believed to release oxygen from the blood, thereby oxygenating the water around the young.
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