The operculum is composed of four fused bones; the opercle, preopercle, interopercle, and subopercle. These appear to be derived from the separate gill-slit covers of an elasmobranch ancestor of the teleost fishes. The posterior rim of the operculum is equipped with a flexible, ribbed structure which acts as a seal to prevent reverse water flow during respiration. The morphology of this anatomical feature varies greatly between species.
For some fish, opercula are vital in obtaining oxygen. They open as the mouth closes, causing the pressure inside the fish to drop. Water then flows towards the lower pressure across the fish's gill lamellae, allowing some oxygen to be absorbed from the water.
Cartilaginous fishes (Sharks and Rays)do not have opercula. Without them, other methods of getting water to the gills are required, such as ventilation.