The Fish Keeping & Aquarium Guide.

How Long Can a Fish Live Out of Water?

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Are you going out to purchase your first batch of fish pets? Are you considering fish keeping as a hobby? Now you are thinking of transporting your fishes from the pet store or, if you’ve caught one, the question that bothers you is: how long is it allowable for fish to stay out of the water until you get to your aquarium?

Depending on the type of fish you want to have, or considering buying, you may need to consider other factors once you have transported it in the aquarium, like:

  1. Is it saltwater or freshwater fish?
  2. What should be the size of your aquarium to cater to a type of fish?
  3. Will it get along with the other fish that is already inhabiting your aquarium?”
    Now, these questions are just some of the things you need to answer for you to take care of your fish.

“Fish out of water”–this is an expression that refers to an individual who is uncomfortable and seems unfitting in a particular type of crowd or situation. Thinking of that expression also refers to a fish out of its natural habitat–it would begin to flap around and struggle to reach the water. But, did you know that some fishes can survive out of water?

Although this is only on certain conditions that depend on climate and state of surroundings, some types of fish species can survive on land on a specific amount of time.
At its most extreme, fish such as the West African lungfish can survive on dry land for YEARS to survive droughts.

Many a hobbyist have made the mistake of fully emptying their tank while cleaning. That is a big mistake since you would risk your fish even more because of ‘over cleaning’ your tank, stripping the biological balance that has been built up by your fish. Other times, fish keepers intentionally empty the tank’s water thinking that the fish can survive to be out of water for just a short time, which is cruel and leads to stress your fish out.

Like all living organisms, fishes require oxygen to stay alive. Most fishes’ breathing apparatus is their gills, by which they get oxygen through water, but for certain types of fish, they can get oxygen through body mechanisms like their skin. Most fishes don’t have the natural ability or have developed lungs for that matter, to survive on land. On the other hand, if they stay out for too long, they’ll dry up, suffocate and die since the maximum for hardy pet fishes can only survive out of water for up to 10 minutes. The length of time a fish can stay out of water will depend on their type, size, the environment, or the natural habitat they have come from, and finally, the length of time you’ve been struggling with it.

Fishes who have developed body mechanisms to extract oxygen from their skin, to survive on land are typically amphibious beings. Also, bigger creatures can store air to survive underwater. Pet fishes who live in aquariums do not have these special features. Several factors add upon how long certain fishes survive out of water.

Factor That Affect the Duration of Fish Survival Out of Water

1) Species

Amphibious fish, depending on the variety and type, can survive for hours, days to even years out of the water thanks to the bodily mechanism they have developed to withstand harsh conditions in the wild. Pet fishes barely have this ability and can only do for a few seconds of minutes, so it is a matter of life and death for these to be underwater as soon as possible.

2) Metabolic Rates

It is referred to as the oxygen consumption of fishes and gives information on the amount of energy a fish requires to stay alive. Fishes’ metabolic rates are dependent on environmental conditions like temperature, and this also affects their body temperature. Fishes that thrive in colder temperatures have slower metabolic rates and can survive on land for a lengthy amount of time.

3) Oxygen Demand

In addition to fishes living in colder temperatures with slower metabolic rates, they also have lower oxygen demands making them more resilient when they are out of water.

Why Do Fish Leave the Water?

For survival reasons, unique fishes can stay out of the water due to the following reasons:
a) to steer clear from predators;
b) to get away from polluted water and if the current environment has low oxygen;
c) to get away from water that is starting to warm up;
d) in search of mates, food, and the current biome is changing or drying up.

Fishes That Can Breathe Out of Water

These unique fishes can survive and even thrive on land on an extensive amount of time than their counterparts. They may not appear as pets that can be kept in an aquarium, but they are certainly fascinating creatures.

1) Mangrove Killifish

Also known as mangrove rivulus can be found in brackish (estuaries) and marine waters, and less often in freshwater. They are known to thrive in the Caribbean and some parts of the Atlantic, especially in mangrove forests. This fish is amphibious and can survive on land for two months getting oxygen through their skin, and they also breed by self-fertilization.

2) Mudskippers

Known for their unusual looks and size, they are amphibious with their ability to live a large portion of their life out of water. These can grow up to twelve inches long. They have specially adapted on living on the land with their pectoral fins positioned more forward on their bodies like legs enabling them to move or skip across muddy surfaces and even climb trees and low branches. With their fins, they can leap to a distance of over two feet.

Their skin consisted of blood vessels that increase their ability to move on muddy and swamplands from birth. Having adopted this system of breathing through their skin, they can directly source their oxygen to their blood vessels.

3) Walking Catfish

Catfishes are known for their barbels that resemble cat’s whiskers, walking catfish is a freshwater fish commonly found in southeast Asia and can grow up to 20 inches long. They are prominent for their ‘walking’ ability using their pectoral fins since they can wiggle to move their bodies across dry land. It can often found after washed up on shore due to heavy rains or high tide.

Catfishes, in general, have a large family tree and are adaptable to different water conditions. In fish markets, catfishes for sale are maintained alive in a large bowl or tank with only a small amount of water and can stay alive from 15 to 18 hours.

4) Rockskipper Fish

Also known as the coral blenny are freshwater fishes and thrive in high-energy, exposed habitats and famously for skipping or leaping from one rock pool to another in search of mates and new habitats, they can stay on land for several hours. These are found in shallow pools hiding among rocks or just skipping over breakwater and rubble.

5) Snakehead Fish

This fish is common in certain parts of Africa and Asia. They are amphibious, having an elongated body and known as predators and have a carnivorous diet feeding on plankton to small fishes and frogs, even rats.

Some variety of snakeheads can survive on land for up to six days, some for months in search of new habitat.

For fishkeepers who have this fish, it is highly advisable to be careful in handling this type of fish and taking it out for a hefty amount of time since it can scuttle away and target an unsuspecting prey.

6) Lungfish

Unique and rare species, upon which six species are left and are found only in South America, Australia, and Africa. From its namesake, lungfishes live in freshwaters such as lakes and rivers and famously known as the descendants of the ancient Osteichthyes and the only fish species to have retained the mechanism to breathe air on land, lungs, and lobbed fins and complete internal skeleton from its predecessor Sarcopterygii. Lungfishes utilize both lungs and gills since their habitat tends to dry up, and they go into a stage called aestivation, a type of dormancy when they solely used their lung, and they can live for up to 4 years.

7) Eels

Eels are elongated, ray-finned fishes that commonly found slithering on sandy and rocky surfaces. Eels can climb over obstacles while swimming upstream like dams and have developed breathing through their skin. They live on the ocean’s shallow waters and burrow in sand, mud, and hide in rocks as well.

8) Climbing Perch

Fish that is native in Asian countries, especially China and India. Very much like the lungfish, this type of fish has both gills and lungs, which makes it resilient in hardy environments. They are invasive species, which means that it can thrive and invade other territories by simply stowing away in fishing boats to get to another area. They are said to have begun thriving outside of its native counterparts, such as Papua New Guinea and even Australia. They can live on land from 6 to 10 hours. It moves from one place to another by wriggling its body forward.

9) Large Ocean Fish

Some underwater creatures often have mistaken as fish. These are marine mammals such as the short-beaked dolphins, beluga, blue whale, sperm whales, porpoise, and others that can survive underwater by storing air and oxygen through their lungs and into their airbags.
Like humans, marine mammals have lungs and have to get oxygen by going to the surface of the water. For example, dolphins would seemingly display a ‘happy performance’ of jumping into the air just to get a whiff of oxygen from their blowholes (placed on top of their head) from the atmosphere and store them into their airbags they spend their time underwater. That act is repeating whenever they need air.

The length of time holding their air depends on the type of marine mammal. Some can live for months, some hours, and continuously get air from the surface to support their bodies. If they fail to surface, their body will crush from the weight of their organs.


There are different varieties of fish. Marine creatures are not limited to living 24/7 underwater. They have different survival mechanisms to survive the wild such as finding habitat, mating, and searching for food. Most of what we know about fishes breathe underwater, and it is especially essential for us fishkeepers to keep it that way and not test the capabilities of our fish pets. Some are amphibious, and some require air, although they live underwater, every fish needs oxygen to thrive.

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