African lungfish – Habitat, Diet and Culture

There are different varieties of fishes on the globe and the west African lungfish is one among them. These African lungfishes are also known as Tana lungfish.

As the name suggests, these they are usually found in different parts of west and middle african freshwater habitat.

They are also found in some parts of southern Africa. The scientific name of African lungfish is Protopterus annectens which was discovered by omen in the year 1839.

Here is how African lungfish look like

African lung fish appearance
harum.koh from Kobe city, Japan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

They usually are found in the freshwater swamps, some parts of backwaters in the south African region and are also found in some parts of west and south African rivers. Although, these fishes showed no change in their evolution for nearly around 400 million years long before the dinosaurs.

This is how an East African lungfish looks like

east african lungfish
Jony Cooper, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the reason they are also referred as “living fossils.” Now, let’s discuss about their structure and body.

External Anatomy

The outer body of African lungfish is quite attractive and similar to that of an eel fish. They have relatively small eyes. This African lungfish has two pairs of long, filamentous fins. Their body is about 10 to 15 times the length of its head.

Their pectoral fins are almost 3 times that of their head length. They have basal fringe in pectoral fins. They have cycloid scales embedded within their skin and these scales act as protective scale and they sometime can be used as camouflage through the use of reflection and coloration to protective from their predators.

When it comes to the number of scales, there are about 45-50 scales running from the region of operculum (Series of bones found in bony fishes) and till the anus (opening of opposite end of a fish’s digestive tract).

There are around 34-37 scales in the body region right before the dorsal fin. They have around 34 to 37 pairs of ribs (long curved bones forming rib cage). They usually have olive or brown coloration on their dorsal side and slightly light coloration near the ventral side.

A newborn African lungfish is about 6 inches in and can grow up to 40 inches can weighing anywhere between 5 to 8 pounds depending upon their age and size.

These lungfishes are great example how they can transform their breathing from water to air. They can survive even in extreme conditions like low oxygen levels and as well as drought conditions.

The lungs of African lungfish contains many thin-walled blood vessels that will help the blood flowing catch oxygen from air gulped into the lung.

Heart in these fishes are adaptable and can partially separate the flow of blood into its pulmonary and systematic circuits. The left side of the atrium absorbs oxygenated blood from the other tissues, while the right side receives deoxygenated blood from the other tissues.

When they pass through the ventricle on their way to the gill arches, the two blood streams stay mostly apart. Due to this reason, the oxygenated blood passes mainly through the anterior gill arches and the deoxygenated blood mostly goes through posterior arches.


African lungfishes are Air-breathing type of fishes and this means they respire through aerial exchange of gas or in addition to that of water. These type of fishes are equipped with modified air bladders, lungs, gills, and skin that help them achieve this type of respiratory system.

They do have gills but, they usually need air every half hour otherwise it will drown. It has a primitive lung that can perform breathtaking when the dry season comes and the water turns to puddles and then to mud.

They have fins that almost looks like limbs and these joints at the bases that help them move. They have survived on the planet from a very long time even before the dinosaurs period. This will lead to a fact that they do have some adaptation that helped them survive for soo long period of time.

They are capable of surviving in the extreme conditions due to this adapting capability. There can be extreme floods and droughts  in some parts of Africa and surprisingly the lung fish can live up to 4 years without water.

During drought conditions, they dig deep hole of about 2 to 9 inches into the soil. It leaves a small hope on top that acts as a path for breathing. Once the African lungfish gets settled inside the ground comfortably, It forms a cell and secretes a special type of mucus all around the small hole and this mucus upon drying will form a thin transparent cocoon.

They are omnivorous in nature meaning they are capable of eating both plant and animal matter. You will find them eating shellfish amphibians and plant matter in their wild habitat. The are quite comfortable with a temperature of around 24° to 30° Celsius. When it comes to pH  they require a pH of around 6 to 8.

They are also adaptable to foods that we feed for our aquarium fishes. As mentioned above, they are capable of living inside a hole for about 4 years and they do just fine without food.

Feeding them thrice a week should work fine as they aren’t that much about food. If you are planning to keep African lungfish in your aquarium, I recommend you to go with the same species or specimen as these fishes are quite unpredictable sometimes.

Often, people have observed them biting with other fishes in their community aquarium. However, they are not much prettier as compared to other community fishes like Oscar, honey gourami, and various other species.

They use their thin hind limbs to lift themselves off the surface and these limbs will also help them move forward.

African Lungfish Breeding

Breeding of African lungfish was quite unclear until 1954. They are most likely breed during the start of rainy season.

However, researchers conducted and observed the breeding behavior of African lungfish that can help African aquaculture to breed African lungfish at the best possible environment.

As African lungfishes are Air breather type of fishes, fish farmers lack in technology and managing this fish is quite a bit hard. However, researchers found that these fishes can live in a low-dissolved oxygen levels with a poor quality water.

Although, the technology is not available with the fish farmers to culture this variety of fish making them hard to breed. There are various artificial breeding technologies available to aid this issue.

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After a successful mating, you will find them building nests and the female African lung fishes lays its eggs in a nest at a comfortable living habitat. The duty of male African lungfish is to guard these laid eggs from predators. Once the eggs hatch, the male lungfish is found to be guarding these small lungfish for about 2 months.

Upon hatching the new born African lungfishes are very similar to that of tadpoles, with some external gills for breathing purposes. However, as they grow these gills are developed into lungs in order to breathe air.

African lungfish lifespan

The lifespan of African lungfish is usually is more than 20 years. Although researchers are still trying to find their exact lifespan as they are not sure. These fishes can live in extreme conditions and their lifespan shouldn’t be affected with environmental variations.

Diet and Feeding

African lungfish are omnivores in nature and this means they can eat both plants and animal matter. They are very adaptive in nature and can survive up to 4 years without food. In their wilder habitat, they eat different types of aquatic animals like prawns, shells, worms and few other small fishes.

Their adaptive nature make them unique when compared to most of the other fishes. They can live in a dug hole without water for about 4 years and this usually called as estivating fish.

However, this happens during the drought conditions and when the conditions improve they show normal behavior. You can feed them thrice a week to enhance their growth rate and keeping them healthy.

If you are culturing African lungfishes , then you should consider feeding them thrice a week with high nutritious food as this will boost their growth rate.

African Lungfish food

  • Pellets
  • Prawns
  • Small or breeder fishes
  • Plant matter
  • Shrimps
  • Frozen food
  • Flakes

The above mentioned are some of the foods you can feed your African lungfish. They are omnivores in nature and are comfortable with most types of the food.

African lungfish as food

Fish is being consumed as food in most parts of the world and this is being followed since a long time by our ancestors. Fish contains enormous amount of proteins that is very beneficial for human beings.

Although, There are different varieties of fishes that are being cooked at various parts of the world. Fish consumers are increasing with time and to meet these demand practice of fish culture is also being done.

African lungfish are also consumed as food in various parts of Africa including few other neighboring states. Consuming fishes like African lungfish in our food habits will ensure our body is provided with good number of protein source.

Eating such foods will also reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and this is due to Omega-3 fatty acid that is present inside these fishes.

African lungfishes are found mainly in areas like Lake Victoria and few other places. These lungfishes are sundried for better preservation.

Here are some of the dishes that are made with African lungfish.

  • Bokkoms
  • Bouillabaisse
  • Bourdeto
  • Ceviche
  • Cioppino
  • Crab stick
  • Crappit heid
  • Croquette
  • Curanto
  • Dressed herring
  • Fish and chips
  • Fish ball
  • Fish chowder
  • Fish slice
  • Fishcake
  • Fishstick
  • Gefilte fish
  • Kamaboko
  • Kipper
  • Lox
  • Machher Jhol
  • Paella
  • Poke (Hawaii)
  • Pompano en Papillote
  • Quenelles Lyonnaises
  • Rakfisk
  • Remoulade
  • Rissole
  • Sashimi
  • Seafood birdsnest
  • Smoked salmon
  • Soused herring
  • Stargazy pie
  • Surimi
  • Surströmming
  • Sushi
  • Tuna fish sandwich
  • Ukha

The above mentioned are some of the foods that are made using fishes. These foods are available in different parts of the world. Although, these are mainly found in specific region depending on their lifestyle and food habits.

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