The gas bladder (also fish maw, less accurately swim bladder or air bladder) is an internal organ that contributes to the ability of a fish to control its buoyancy, and thus to stay at the current water depth, ascend, or descend without having to waste energy in swimming.
The gas bladder is a gas-filled sac located in the dorsal portion of the fish. It has flexible walls that contract or expand according to the ambient pressure. The walls of the bladder contain very few blood vessels and are lined with guanine crystals, which make them impermeable to gases. The bladder has a gas gland that can introduce gases (usually oxygen) to the bladder to increase its volume and thus increase buoyancy. To reduce buoyancy, gases are released from the bladder into the blood stream and then expelled into the water via the gills.
In order to introduce gas into the bladder, the gas gland excretes lactic acid; the resulting acidity causes the hemoglobin of the blood to lose its oxygen, which then diffuses into the bladder while flowing through a complex structure known as the rete mirabile. Elsewhere, at a structure known as the oval window, the bladder is in contact with blood and the oxygen can diffuse back.
Gas bladders have one important disadvantage: they prohibit fast rising, as the bladder would burst.
Gas bladders are only found in ray-finned fish, but a few of these fish that do not need to change water depth have lost them. Many cartilanigous fish, such as sharks, can control their depth only by swimming (using dynamic lift); others store fats or oils for the purpose.
In some fish, mainly freshwater species, the gas bladder is connected to the labyrinth of the inner ear, which provides a precise sense of water pressure (and thus depth), and may also improve hearing.
The combination of gases in the bladder varies; in shallow water fish, the ratios closely approximate that of the atmosphere, while deep sea fish tend to have higher percentages of oxygen. For instance, the eel Synaphobranchus has been observed to have 75.1% oxygen, 20.5% nitrogen, 3.1% carbon dioxide, and 0.4% argon in its gas bladder.
Gas bladders are evolutionarily closely related (i.e. homologous) to lungs. It is believed that the first lungs, simple sacs that allowed to gulp air under oxygen-poor conditions, evolved into the lungs of today's terrestrial vertebrates and into the gas bladders of today's fish. In embryonal development, both lung and gas bladder originate as an outpocketing from the gut; in the case of gas bladders, this connection to the gut continues to exist as the pneumatic duct in more "primitive" teleosts, and is lost in the higher orders. (This is an instance of correlation between ontogeny and phylogeny.) There are no animals which have both lungs and a gas bladder.
In some Asian cultures, fish maw is considered a food delicacy. Usually served braised or in stews, it is rather tasteless by itself, but it is enjoyed more for its slightly rubbery and crunchy texture.
- Carl E. Bond, Biology of Fishes, 2nd ed., (Saunders, 1996) pp. 283-290.