Swamp eels are almost entirely finless; the pectoral and pelvic fins are absent, the dorsal and anal fins are vestigial, reduced to rayless ridges, and the caudal fin ranges from small to absent, depending on species. Almost all of the species lack scales. The eyes are small, and in some cave-dwelling species, they are beneath the skin, so the fish is blind. The gill membranes are fused, and the gill opening is either a slit or pore underneath the throat. The swim bladder and ribs are also absent. These are all believed to be adaptations for burrowing into soft mud during periods of drought, and swamp eels are often found in the mud underneath a dried-up pond.
Most of the species can breathe air, allowing them to survive in low-oxygenated water, and to migrate overland between ponds on wet nights. The linings of the mouth and pharynx are highly vascularised, acting as primitive but efficient lungs. Although swamp eels are not themselves related to amphibians, this lifestyle may well resemble those of the fish from which the land animals evolved during the Devonian period.
Although the adults are virtually finless, the larvae are born with greatly enlarged pectoral fins. The fins are used to propel streams of oxygenated water from the surface along the larva's body. The skin of the larva is thin and vascularised, allowing it to extract oxygen from this stream of water. As the fish grows, the adult air-breathing organ begins to develop, and it no longer requires the fins. At the age of about two weeks, the larva suddenly sheds the pectoral fins, and takes on the adult form.
Most species are protogynous hermaphrodites, that is, most individuals begin life as females, but later change into males. This typically occurs around four years of age, although a small number of individuals are born male and remain so throughout their lives.
In the Jiangnan region of China, swamp eels are a delicacy, usually cooked in stirfries or casseroles. The recipe usually calls for garlic, scallions, bamboo shoots, rice wine, sugar, starch, and soy sauce with prodigious amounts of vegetable oil. It is popular in the region from Shanghai to Nanjing. The Chinese name in pinyin of this dish is chao shan hu. The name of the swamp eel is shan yu or huang shan.