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Although urea production and metabolism in lungish have been thoroughly studied, we have little knowledge of how internal osmotic and electrolyte balance are controlled during estivation or in water. We tested the hypothesis that, compared with the body surface of teleosts, the slender African lungfish (Protopterus dolloi) body surface was relatively impermeable to water, Na+ and Cl- due to its greatly reduced gills. Accordingly, we measured the tritiated water (3H-H2O) flux in P. dolloi in water and during air exposure. In water, 3H-H2O efflux was comparable with the lowest measurements reported in freshwater teleosts, with a rate constant (K) of 17.6% body water h-1. Unidirectional ion fluxes, measured using 22Na+ and 36Cl-, indicated that Na+ and Cl- influx was more than 90% lower than values reported in most freshwater teleosts. During air exposure, a cocoon formed within 1 wk that completely covered the dorsolateral body surface. However, there were no disturbances to blood osmotic or ion (Na+, Cl-) balance, despite seven- to eightfold increases in plasma urea after 20 wk. Up to 13-fold increases in muscle urea (on a dry-weight basis) were the likely explanation for the 56% increase in muscle water content observed after 20 wk of air exposure. The possibility that muscle acted as a “water reservoir” during air exposure was supported by the 20% decline in body mass observed during subsequent reimmersion in water. This decline in body mass was equivalent to 28 mL water in a 100-g animal and was very close to the calculated net water gain (approximately 32 mL) observed during the 20-wk period of air exposure. Tritiated water and unidirectional ion fluxes on air-exposed lungfish revealed that the majority of water and ion exchange was via the ventral body surface at rates that were initially similar to aquatic rates. The 3H-H2O flux declined over time but increased upon reimmersion. We conclude that the slender lungfish body surface, including the gills, has relatively low permeability to water and ions but that the ventral surface is an important site of osmoregulation and ionoregulation. We further propose that an amphibian-like combination of ventral skin water and ion permeability, plus internal urea accumulation during air exposure, allows P. dolloi to extract water from its surroundings and to store water in the muscle when the water supply becomes limited.


This article was originally published in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, 80(1): 99-112. © 2007 The University of Chicago Press