Last Updated: September 4, 2023 by Flora Gibbins
Have you ever wondered how betta fish breathe? If you’ve had a betta fish for a while, perhaps you noticed it acts differently from other fish species.
That’s because betta fish are very different from other freshwater fish species, not just in their behaviors and instincts, but even in the tiniest details like their breathing mechanisms.
But regardless of if you’ve noticed it, we’re here to shed some light on how these magnificent tropical fish breathe, whether in their natural habitats like rice paddies or fish tanks.
So keep reading to learn more about how betta fish breathe and how to accommodate their needs!
- What Do Betta Fish Breathe?
- How Do Betta Fish Breathe?
- Why Do Betta Fish Breathe Air?
- What Is the Labyrinth Organ?
- Why Is My Betta Fish Gasping for Air?
- Should I Adjust My Betta Tank Accordingly?
- Watch This!
- Frequently Asked Questions
What Do Betta Fish Breathe?
The short answer is that betta fish can breathe air.
And it’s not just breathing air pockets in the water, either. If you’ve noticed your betta fish coming out the water’s surface for a moment, then it’s probably for a fresh breath since it can breathe atmospheric air. That’s because betta, like all other fish species, needs oxygen to live, which is abundant in the air.
However, betta fish don’t rely on air as their sole source of oxygen since they also have gills that enable them to absorb the dissolved oxygen in the water. If the betta fish are in oxygen-deficient water, then their air-breathing ability kicks in and enables them to keep going.
How Do Betta Fish Breathe?
Betta fish are… well, fish. And just like any other fish species, they have gills that allow them to absorb water through their mouths, where the thin walls in there can sieve dissolved oxygen off the water.
Afterward, the newly-acquired oxygen makes its way through the betta fish’s systems and supplies its organs with their sustenance. This is how wild bettas and all other fish breathe, so that’s nothing new.
What sets betta fish apart from other fish is their very rare ability to breathe air.
This acts as a kind of backup plan for when betta fish find themselves in low oxygen environments. Usually, when there isn’t enough oxygen, betta fish breathe air by going into the water surface and taking a leaping out or sticking their heads out of the water for a second. And this massive advantage isn’t unique to Siamese fighting fish, either. In fact, all betta species can breathe air, too.
Interestingly, betta species have adapted to this gift over time by developing a new way of scavenging for food by jumping out of the water and catching insects passing by. While their ability to jump out of the water is a fantastic sight to watch, betta fish owners might disagree. A common problem beginner betta owners face is finding their fish lying dead on the floor. That’s because their fish leaped out of the water tank completely.
If you’re looking to buy a new betta fish, make sure the tank you’re getting comes with a lid.
Why Do Betta Fish Breathe Air?
So we’ve established that betta fish breathe air next to the usual gill breathing. But this raises a question: why? Almost all other fish don’t float to the surface and can’t breathe atmospheric air in the first place, so why did betta fish develop this ability? Much like other tropical fish, betta fish live in shallow waters. Their natural habitat contains murky, muddy, and overall oxygen-deprived water, like rice paddies.
This harsh environment would be too challenging for most fish, but not for the adaptive betta, which developed a special organ called the Labyrinth organ that helps it survive these conditions.
In contrast, any fish that doesn’t have the Labyrinth organ that allows betta fish to breathe air simply won’t survive in these conditions.
What Is the Labyrinth Organ?
The labyrinth is a rare organ among fish that sits behind the fish’s gills and acts like lungs in land animals since it enables betta fish to breathe air.
The labyrinth organ is an extension of the gills. And while it’s similar to lungs in their purpose, they’re entirely different in their appearance, as it consists of folded bone-like membranes forming compartments. These compartments are also surrounded by blood vessels that absorb the oxygen in the air and spread it into the betta’s bloodstream.
Betta Fish Can Reproduce With the Labyrinth Organ
Surprisingly, betta fish have developed a secondary function for the lung-like labyrinth organ, and that’s reproduction.
If you’ve noticed your betta fish blowing a wide bubble nest in its fish tank, you might be concerned at first. However, this is actually a sign that the betta is healthy and happy.
Male betta fish typically build these bubble nests to shelter their eggs and fry and care for them until they learn to swim freely.
Male bettas mark their territories with these nests. Female bettas can also build small bubble nests, but it’s usually a sign of high hormone activity, which indicates they’re ready to mate.
This bubble nesting isn’t universal among all betta species, though. Some others, like the Betta macrostoma, carry their eggs and fry in their mouths instead.
What Other Fish Have the Labyrinth Organ?
The Anabantoidei Suborder (Labyrinth Fish)
Fish in the Anabantoidei suborder, also called labyrinth fish, are those that have the labyrinth organ. They can breathe air with it and (mostly) can reproduce by bubbling.
Most labyrinth fish are gourami species, such as the blue gourami, dwarf gourami, paradise fish, and three-spot gourami.
Many labyrinth fish are native to East, Southeast, and South Asia, where the temperatures are high and the waters are shallow and poorly oxygenated. Other labyrinth fish are found in Africa, where they reside in shallow rainforest water.
Why Is My Betta Fish Gasping for Air?
Just because your betta fish can breathe air doesn’t mean you should watch it continuously sticking its head out of the water to gasp for air and do nothing. In fact, it’s preferable for the fish to never have to breathe air in the first place.
And while you may be wondering if the fish is gasping for air for fun or because something is wrong. The fact is, most of the time, your fish is gasping for air; something is wrong.
The Water Isn’t Oxygenated Enough
The most common reason your fish may be gasping for air is your tank water is low on oxygen.
Another tell-tale sign of low oxygen levels is the fish explicitly breathing the surface water where oxygen is more present. A few ways to fix this are getting a water filter that disturbs the water enough for the oxygen to equally dissolve into the tank or adding an air stone to your tank to stir up the water without disturbing the betta fish.
Your Fish Is Sick
If you’ve made sure all the water and tank conditions are in tip-top shape, but your betta fish is still gasping for air, then the problem may be coming from the fish itself. Aside from giving them the proper treatment, it’s better to also isolate your betta fish when they’re sick and perform a few water changes.
Some diseases like anchor worms and columnaris can cause the fish to gasp for air.
The Water Is Too Hot
If you live in a region with a warmer climate, or you’ve placed your betta fish tank in direct sunlight, your tank water might get too hot for the betta fish’s liking, which could eventually result in your fish experiencing a temperature shock.
The issue is that when water heats up, the oxygen will be condensed into a small layer of water on the surface; therefore, the fish will hang out there.
The Water Has a High Ammonia Concentration
This problem mainly occurs in overpopulated tanks. The more fish you have in a tank, the higher the chance of an ammonia spike. If you don’t quickly fix an ammonia spike, then your fish will likely die from ammonia poisoning.
Ammonia can hurt your fish by giving them a burning sensation in their gills, making it painful to pass water through.
A few ways to notice a high level of ammonia are:
- Your fish have inflamed anus and eyes
- They don’t eat as much
- Injured or bleeding gills
Should I Adjust My Betta Tank Accordingly?
Betta fish have unique habits and needs when compared to other fish. As such, you might consider building a special tank for them instead of putting them in a community tank with other species that have different needs.
Fortunately, betta fish don’t need that much-specialized care. All you need to do is provide a secure habitat for them.
Here’s how to do it:
Give Your Betta a Large Enough Tank
Although bettas live in shallow waters, that doesn’t mean you should confine them too much. Some people think that all a betta needs are a vase or small jar. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception that causes the death of many bettas. These confined spaces are uncomfortable for the betta to live in and can easily cause disease and unhappiness.
Make sure you give your betta a proper fish tank with at least 4 gallons of water.
Maintain an Adequate Oxygen Level
As an exotic fish keeper, it’s important to know that just because your betta has the option to breathe the air above the surface does not mean you should rely on this. And while it’s true that betta fish can naturally survive in low-oxygen waters, they’ll feel much safer if there’s enough oxygen in the water, giving them room to thrive.
Add Vegetation if Possible
One of the primary oxygen sources in the natural habitats of betta fish is plants. Aquatic plants and algae provide a rich source of sustenance for the betta fish in the form of oxygen and food, but they also shelter the fish.
If you want to keep your betta fish happy, then plant some aquatic plants.
Don’t Use an Air Pump
Bettas are natural fighters, and their instincts are easy to trigger if they feel there’s a potential danger. So, for example, if they find themselves in strong water tides, they’ll get furious and defensive. That’s why we don’t recommend using air pumps to supply their water with oxygen since these pumps stir the water too much. Instead, you can use a small air stone.
Fun Fact: Aquatic water is usually the culprit in your pet fish’s poor aquarium environment! To get an idea of proper tank water maintenance, read our article How To Soften Aquarium Water for more information.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can my betta fish breathe air from the surface?
Yes, betta fish can often rise to the water’s surface for a fresh breath of air when they’re feeling musty in their water. Then, they can either leap out of the water for a moment or stick their heads out.
Can a Siamese fighting fish drown?
If the tank is too small, the oxygen levels are low, and the fish can’t find atmospheric air at the surface, they can suffocate and die. Betta fish rely on oxygen in the water and air, so taking one source away risks their lives.
Can I Take My Betta Fish Out of the Water?
The betta’s ability to breathe air is a backup for when they can’t satisfy their oxygen needs underwater. But they can’t rely solely on air for oxygen.
So don’t take your betta out of the water or let people hold it since that’ll make it extremely uncomfortable.
To summarize, betta fish need oxygen to survive, just like any other fish. However, instead of solely relying on their gills to absorb dissolved oxygen in the water, betta fish can breathe air in the atmosphere just like we do.
This is because betta fish have a unique organ called the labyrinth, which enables them to breathe above the surface if their water is too low on oxygen.
However, don’t let this trick you. Your betta fish still needs adequate space and oxygen to thrive, so put them in harsh conditions just because it won’t kill the fish immediately.