Last night we were playing balderdash, a game where you make up definitions for obscure words. One of the words was gourami, and it turned out to be a freshwater fish that breathes air. I thought that sounded pretty cool, so I looked them up and decided to blog about them. By the way, my made up definition was ‘A flummoxed clown’. No one picked it.

Gouramis are freshwater fish in the family Osphronemidae. They live in Africa and Southern Asia. Many species are used extensively in the pet trade, and the immensely popular betta fish is a member of the gourami family. Although the word freshwater brings to mind pristine ponds and bubbling brooks, these are not the environments in which gouramis thrive. Nope, instead they like brackish fetid pools, stagnant things that nobody would ever want to touch, let alone live in.

A blue gourami, looking pretty and stuff.
A blue gourami, looking pretty and stuff.

Such environments, unsurprisingly, are not easy places to live. Often these waters are low or absent in oxygen, something all fish need to survive. Gouramis have found a solution for this, and that’s where the air-breathing part comes in. Gouramis have a specialized organ beside their gill chamber, which allows them to breath air from the atmosphere. They take in air bubbles and store them in the labyrinthine organ before expelling the bubble through the gill covers, where the oxygen can be absorbed.

These air bubbles also have another function; they help gouramis hear. The place where the air bubbles are stored are right next to a membrane that attaches to the inner ear. Any vibrations are easily transmitted through the bubble and into the ear.

A bubble nest with gourami fry in it.
A bubble nest with gourami fry in it.

Gouramis also use bubbles to build nests for their eggs. They spit out mucous covered bubbles until they’ve built a nice little raft where they can deposit their eggs. The male gouramis build the nest and guard it from other fish. Putting the eggs in the bubble nest not only helps protect the young, but also keeps them near the surface of the water, where more oxygen is.

Some gouramis are extremely aggressive to other members of their species. Males have been bred for fighting, which is why betta fish puff and get all angry when you put two of them next to each other (my roommate and I used to do that when we had two bettas). Another thing some gouramis do is communicate by croaking, which they can do because of that air-breathing organ. This is used to establish dominance and territory boundaries. Another weird thing gouramis do is synchronized breathing. They surface all together to protect themselves from predators – after all there’s safety in numbers.

A betta fish, which has been bred for fighting and the pet trade and now looks almost nothing like its wild counterpart.
A betta fish, which has been bred for fighting and the pet trade and now looks almost nothing like its wild counterpart.

Who knew that a fish from balderdash could be so interesting? I still kind of wish that it meant a flummoxed clown, but still I’m pretty happy with the way this post worked out. So thanks, balderdash!

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