West African Lungfish

West African Lungfish

Meet the African lungfish, a prehistoric fish that travels through water and mud, and across land. Discover the unique adaptations that make survival possible for this fish.


4 - 10


Biology, Earth Science

Nat Geo WILD

West African lungfish are prehistoric animals. They have survived unchanged for so long (nearly 400 million years) that they are sometimes nicknamed “living fossils.” West African lungfish have remarkable adaptations that have helped them survive: a primitive lung and the ability to survive in a state of estivation, which is similar to hibernation.

A lungfish’s lung is a biological adaptation. A biological adaptation is a physical change in an organism that develops over time. Like all fish, lungfish have organs known as gills to extract oxygen from water. The biological adaptation of the lung allows lungfish to also extract oxygen from the air.

A lungfish’s estivation also involves a number of biological adaptations, including the excretion of a mucuscocoon” and digestion of the fish’s own muscle tissue to obtain nutrients.

A lungfish’s estivation also includes a behavioral adaptation. A behavioral adaptation describes a way an organism acts. Prior to estivation, lungfish furiously burrow into the muddy ground. The behavioral adaptation of burrowing allows lungfish to create a protected habitat where they can survive during a long period of dormancy.

Watch this video, from the Nat Geo WILD series “Destination Wild,” and use our glossary to help answer questions in the Questions tab. Learn more about these fascinating fish with our Fast Facts.

Fast Fact

The West African lungfish digs its burrow using its mouth. It chews through the moist earth, excreting the mud through its gills.

Fast Fact

The largest specimen of West African lungfish was a meter (3.3 feet) long and weighed a whopping 4 kilograms (nearly 9 pounds).

Fast Fact

West African lungfish have a very slow metabolism. This means they are much less active than other fish, and often rest at the bottom of a lakebed or riverbed. In fact, West African lungfish are so inactive that many aquarium owners mistakenly think their fish is dead!

Fast Fact

The West African lungfish is an omnivore. It feeds on everything from frogs, fish, and mollusks to tree roots and seeds. Although larger fish and mammals may prey on juvenile lungfish, the adult lungfish has no major predators.

Fast Fact

There are four species of African lungfish. (The one in the Destination Wild video is the West African lungfish, found in freshwater habitats throughout sub-Saharan Africa.) Other species of lungfish are indigenous to Australia and South America.

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National Geographic Society
Jessica Shea, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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