Uganda’s Sharp-Toothed, Walking, & Air-Breathing Fish: The Lungfish

by Sandy Salle on February 19, 2013

Post image for Uganda’s Sharp-Toothed, Walking, & Air-Breathing Fish: The Lungfish

To the left is an image of the lungfish, taken from the Shedd Aquarium website

Celebrated for its abundant biodiversity, Uganda’s Lake Victoria once boasted the most diverse fish environment on the planet. And among the many species of fish living here today is the lungfish. This unique fish is a living evolutionary example of how fish can transition from breathing in the water to breathing air.

They get their name from their ability to breath air, using their air bladder as a lung (as opposed to breathing through their gills), which most fish use for buoyancy in swimming. In fact, if held underwater and prevented from getting air, this fish can actually drown.

In terms of its appearance, the lungfish has an elongated body that is similar to an eel, with pectoral and pelvic fins that are thread-like, with soft scales. Using their pectoral and pelvic fins, they have the ability to crawl along the bottom of the ocean or on land, or swim like an eel. The larger of the species can grow to about 6 feet long.

And one of the most fascinating facts about the lungfish is that it can live out of water for months at a time in burrows of hardened mud under a dried-up streambed, sealing themselves in a mucous-lined burrow. During this time, they have the ability to greatly reduce their metabolic rate. There are only three genera of lungfish alive today, each found on a single continent. Aside from Africa, the lungfish can be found in Australia and South America.

Local villagers depend on this fish as a sustainable food source.  In many areas of Africa, knowing where to find food is the key to survival. In addition to Lake Victoria, these fish typically inhabit other large lakes in the area as well as shallow waters, such as swamps and marshes, and can be found in rice paddies, as well. In fact, fishermen will actually dig holes in these low swampy areas to cultivate lungfish.

Below is a video of this fascinating creature:

Native African villagers dig up the lungfishes by looking for signs of a burrow and then wade into the boggy water and reach blindly down into the muddy bottom, feeling for the fish. This is very tricky business because the lungfish have very sharp teeth that can actually take a finger off if you are not careful!

Lungfish are said to be rather strong in taste, so you either love them or hate them. In Uganda, the lungfish is associated with men and manhood, and, therefore, only men eat lungfish. It is considered by females to be a “sister fish.”

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