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Fishes within this group of families often inhabit oxygen depleted waters of Africa and Asia. They possess an auxiliary breathing organ that enables them to use atmospheric air gulped at the surface. This "labyrinth organ" is a folded mass of bone and capillary-rich tissue, situated internally near the gills. Its function is to store air and extract oxygen.

The Asiatic anabantids are usually peaceful and swim gracefully. Gouramies have threadlike pelvic fins with taste cells at the tips. A few other Asian species make croaking noises when they are breeding or when removed from the water. African species are larger and are stealthy predators, often with spectacular colors and patterns.

Most anabantids build floating bubble nests in which the eggs are deposited. The male spurns the female once spawning is completed. He may even kill her as he takes on responsibility for guarding the eggs in the nest. An exception is the mouth-brooding Chocolate Gourami.