Queensland Lungfish

Fact Sheet

Queensland Lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri. Image: QM, Gary Cranitch.

Often described as a living fossil, the Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) has changed very little in more than 110 million years. It has attracted tremendous scientific interest since it was first described in 1870. While much work has been done, several aspects of its biology have yet to be fully clarified. In particular, the regularity at which juveniles are added to the overall lungfish population is still uncertain. The lungfish is fully protected and its capture is prohibited except for specific purposes under special permit. An adult Australian Lungfish can be recognised by the elongated cylindrical body, eel-like tail, broad flat head, large bony overlapping scales, small eyes, and pelvic and pectoral fins resembling flippers. Colour varies from olive to dark brown, with irregular dark blotches on the sides and back. The belly is pale to salmon-pink. Juvenile lungfish have a more rounded head and their skin pigment is dull compared to the adult. The mottled brown pattern of the upper body provides good camouflage for small lungfish. Juveniles never appear to be numerous in the wild and generally those seen are medium to large specimens. Adults can attain a length of 1.5 m but are more commonly seen at 1 m. At the time of European settlement the natural range of Australian Lungfish was within the catchment of the Burnett and Mary Rivers in south-east Queensland. However, it probably occupied a much larger range within Australia during earlier times. The fossil record indicates that lungfish once extended into New South Wales, and several closely related species, now extinct, were common in many parts of Queensland. Successful introductions have been made to the Brisbane, North and South Pine Rivers, and Enoggera Reservoir. Introductions to the Coomera and Albert Rivers and Lake Manchester were less successful, but lungfish may still persist there in low numbers. Lungfish are found in deep pools with clear water and an abundance of water plants along the edges. These plants, particularly Vallisneria with its long strap-like leaves, provide suitable spawning sites. Adult lungfish are omnivorous, consuming small clams and snails, freshwater prawns, worms and tadpoles, as well as algae and the leaves of aquatic plants. Juvenile lungfish are essentially carnivorous and live on small worms, insect larvae and snails. As they grow older they begin to eat filamentous algae as well.

Lungfish have both gills and lungs for gaseous exchange. Most of the time the lungfish uses its gills, employing its single lung when it is actively hunting for food at night or during the spawning season when its need for oxygen is greater than usual. The lung is also useful when the river is in flood and the water is laden with slit. Possession of a lung does not help the lungfish if the water is polluted. When surfacing to empty and refill its lung, the lungfish exhales with a noise resembling a blast from small bellows. Spawning occurs between August and December and involves single pairs in the shallows among aquatic plants. Eggs, 3-6 mm in diameter and enclosed in a larger mass of jelly, are usually deposited singly and adhere to water plants and submerged matts of fine tree roots. Larvae hatch approximately 21 days later, if the temperature is in the range of 23-27ºC. The lungfish egg follows a pattern of development reminiscent of a frog or toad egg. Once the early stages of development are over, lungfish begin to look less and less amphibian-like. The young fish changes gradually from a soft inactive and undeveloped ‘tadpole’ to an active fish with all the attributes of its parents. Several myths about lungfish abounded in the early days. They were thought to spend their early life buried in mud and were believed capable of leaving the water to avoid predators. These stories are untrue, although they are often repeated to this day. Lungfish are regarded as at risk due to their restricted range and low fecundity. Other important factors are their susceptibility to agricultural runoff and habitat alteration, which may detrimentally influence their capacity to reproduce. Being a very long-lived species, it is not essential for lungfish to successfully breed every year to sustain their population. However, it has always been a challenge for zoologists to accurately monitor the level of recruitment of young lungfish to the population and thereby be confident of the species prospects for long term survival.

www.qm.qld.gov.au

© The State of Queensland, (Queensland Museum) 2011

Further Information Kemp, A., 1987. The Biology of the Australian Lungfish Neoceratodus forsteri (Krefft 1870). Journal of Morphology, Supplement No.1, pp.181-98. Longman, H.A., 1928. Discovery of Juvenile Lungfishes, with Notes on Epiceratodus. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, 9(2): pp.160-73. Merrick, J. R., & Schmida, G. E., 1984. Australian Freshwater Fishes Biology and Management. Griffin Press, Netley, South Australia. Ryan, M. (Ed.), 2007. Wildlife of Greater Brisbane. Queensland Museum, Brisbane. Schmida, G.E., 1985. The Cold-blooded Australians. Doubleday Australia Pty Ltd, Lane Cove, Sydney. Authors: Jeff Johnson & Ray Leggett

Queensland Museum PO Box 3300, SOUTH BRISBANE QLD 4101 Phone: (07) 3840 7555 http://www.qm.qld.gov.au/

www.qm.qld.gov.au

© The State of Queensland, (Queensland Museum) 2011

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