Did you know that Siamese fighting fish have a superpower among tropical fish? As well as breathing oxygen from the water like other fish, they can also breathe from the air using their special adaptation known as the ‘labyrinth organ.’
So does that mean a betta fish can survive out of water, or in a tank without a filter?
Come with me as I explore the fascinating facts about betta fish breathing and what you can do to keep your betta fish breathing steadily in prime condition.
How Do Betta Fish Breathe?
Like all fish, betta fish have gills, meaning they can breathe dissolved oxygen from the water.
But as well as gills, betta fish have a special adaptation – the labyrinth organ that allows them to breathe oxygen from the air, too.
If you’ve seen your betta fish at the water’s surface, gulping air, this is probably what he was doing – simply breathing!
What Is the Labyrinth Organ in Betta Fish?
The labyrinth organ is located just in front of the fish’s gills and is very much like an extension of them It allows betta fish to breathe oxygen from the air as well as water.
When the fish gulps air from the surface, it is forced into the labyrinth organ. The air is then stored there and gradually absorbed into the bloodstream.
The labyrinth organ is named as such because within it are many maze-like compartments of lamellae – thin, bony membranes that absorb oxygen from the air into the fish’s blood.
Why Do Betta Fish Need a Labyrinth Organ?
Like some other species of fish, bettas come from wild habitats that sometimes get very low in oxygen.
Because the weather cycles in Southeast Asia have long periods without rain, the rice paddies, swamps, and forest pools that betta fish come from sometimes become stagnant and depleted in oxygen.
The labyrinth organ can be a lifeline in situations like this, helping a fish to stay alive in poor water conditions that other fish would suffocate in.
In addition, the labyrinth organ also allows male fish to build a bubble nest…
How Do Bettas Use Their Labyrinth Organ to Build Bubble Nests?
If you’ve ever seen your male betta fish blowing bubbles at the aquarium’s surface, this is a good sign.
A bubble nest is a marvelous floating mass of bubbles that is designed to harbor and protect a betta fish’s fertilized eggs after mating, as well as make it easier for the parent fish to protect eggs and young from predators.
Building bubble nests is a natural and healthy behavior in betta fish which means that your male is feeling in prime condition and is waiting to impress a female with his incredible bubble architecture!
Bubble nests are built from the air, gulped from the surface, stored briefly in the labyrinth organ, then spat out with sticky saliva that helps the bubbles to bind together. Betta fish may also incorporate plant material into these nests to make them even more robust.
Are Betta Fish Born With a Labyrinth Organ?
Interestingly, betta fish are not born with a fully functioning labyrinth organ, but instead, develop it gradually as they mature. This means that betta fish fry need a little help to begin their air-breathing capacities.
In breeding tanks where baby betta fish are developing, it’s recommended not to fill the tank to the top, and keep a tight-fitting lid. This creates the perfect humid atmosphere for the babies to develop their labyrinth organs.
Do Adult Betta Fish Need a Tight-fitting Aquarium Lid?
Betta fish fry needs a tight-fitting lid to create the ideal warm, humid atmosphere above the water for them to develop its labyrinth organ. But do adults need the same?
While fully developed betta fish will be able to breathe air more easily than their babies, you can still help them out by keeping a tight-fitting lid so the air conditions above the water are ideal for them to breathe from.
In any case, a tight-fitting lid is also essential to prevent your betta from jumping out of the tank! Although long-finned males are less likely to do this, females and Plakat bettas are notorious for their tank-leaping antics, and nobody enjoys coming home to find their pet fish on the floor!
Which Other Fish Have a Labyrinth Organ?
The labyrinth organ may be a rare and special adaptation in betta fish, but they are not the only kind of fish to have evolved this superpower.
Other fish in the labyrinth fish clan (aka. Anabantoidei family) such as gourami species, Paradise Fish, and Climbing Perch also have labyrinth organs, meaning they can breathe oxygen from the air, just like bettas can.
Can Bettas Survive Out of Water?
Just because bettas can breathe air, it doesn’t mean they could survive out of the water for long.
Although their labyrinth organ would allow them to survive out of water for longer than most other fish species, they would still need to be kept moist to survive any length of time (perhaps two hours at the very most).
Being out of the water would also cause your betta fish considerable stress, and possible shock. Shock can easily be fatal to a betta fish, so removing your betta from the water could still prove very dangerous to its health.
Can Betta Fish Live Without a Filter or Air Pump?
The fact that bettas can breathe oxygen from the air has led to myths that you can keep betta fish without an aquarium filter or air pump. This nonsense advice has caused many betta fish to die needlessly and their ill-informed owners’ unnecessary anguish.
Bettas will thrive much better in water that has sufficient oxygen levels, but filters are also essential to keep the water clean and to convert toxic ammonia and nitrites into (relatively) harmless nitrates.
Without a filter, you’d need to perform endless daily water changes to keep ammonia and nitrite levels low enough to preserve your betta’s life.
Even one day without a filter and water changes would likely cause your betta to suffer from ammonia poisoning, which could prove fatal.
How Much Do Betta Fish Breathe From the Air vs Water
A healthy betta fish living in high-quality water will naturally breathe both from the air, using its labyrinth organ, and the water, using its gills.
How much a betta will breathe from either air or water depends on the individual, his behavior, and the tank environment.
If your tank’s water has a plentiful oxygen supply, your betta fish might need to breathe oxygen from the air less often, but in tanks with poor water quality and low oxygen levels, your betta may be seen breathing from the air more often.
How much oxygen your betta needs also depends on how active he is. Since active behavior burns more oxygen, a busy betta fish will naturally require more oxygen and more air-breathing than a betta that’s lying around all day in his hammock!
How Often Should a Betta Fish Breathe Air From the Surface?
From the reports of several betta owners, I’d say as a rough approximation, a healthy betta fish kept in good water conditions should come to the surface to breathe anywhere between one to five times over 20 minutes.
Of course, this depends a lot on his activity levels. If your betta is zooming about, chasing other fish, or getting excited about food he might need to breathe air every minute or so. If he is sleeping, then he may use his labyrinth organ as little as once an hour.
But if your betta is constantly breathing from the surface, even when he’s not very active, it could indicate a serious problem.
Why Is My Betta Constantly Gulping at the Water’s Surface?
As we’ve discussed, breathing oxygen from the air is normal and healthy behavior in betta fish, but if your fish is breathing heavily or constantly gulping air at the water’s surface, it could indicate a problem.
Ammonia is so toxic to fish that ammonia concentrations should always be kept at zero. If ammonia levels increase, then fish are likely to suffer from ammonia poisoning.
As well as gasping for air, symptoms include red or purple inflamed gills, lethargy, and, in severe cases, bloody patches on the body.
If you suspect ammonia poisoning, test your water immediately to get confirmation. Perform an emergency 40% water change with treated, clean water, and try to address the root cause of the problem (most likely a faulty biological filter or poor tank sanitation).
Low Oxygen Levels
While betta fish can breathe air from the water surface when oxygen levels are sufficient they prefer to breathe from both the water and air.
If your betta seems to be doing most of its breathing from the air, it could indicate a lack of oxygen in your fish tank. This can be due to poor water quality or insufficient water circulation in the tank.
Improve tank hygiene by vacuuming your gravel and changing the water more often, and keeping your filter clean.
If the problem persists, consider installing an air stone or an aquarium spray bar to deliver more oxygen to the water.
Stress or Shock
Stress is a major root cause of many health problems in betta fish, and an extremely stressed or shocked fish may remain at the water’s surface hyperventilating, trying to get enough oxygen to sustain its panicked system.
Major causes of stress and shock include sudden changes in water temperature, incorrect water temperature, poor water quality, bullying from other tank mates, and aquarium lights that are left on overnight.
Test your tank’s water and try to correct these issues for symptoms to improve.
Other Health Problems
As well as the first three scenarios, your betta may be gasping at the water’s surface due to other health conditions such as gill flukes or anchor worms that can directly attack your fish’s gills.
Check your betta’s gills carefully for any sign of irritation or any foreign objects that may be attached.
For further reasons that your betta might be hanging around at the water’s surface, check out my dedicated article on the subject here.
Betta fish possess the unusual ability to breathe oxygen from the air as well as the water, and in normal conditions, they’ll do both.
But even if betta fish can breathe air, they still need an aquarium filter and well-oxygenated water to remain happy.
While a healthy betta fish may come to the surface for a breath of air every 5-20 minutes or so, a betta that’s stuck at the water’s surface breathing constantly is a cause for concern and may require emergency care.