Lamprey Facts: This Eel-like Creature Sucks Blood for a Living

Meet the lamprey, a haunting embodiment of nature’s uncanny artistry. With a visage that seems plucked from the pages of a spine-tingling tale, these mysterious beings beckon us to explore the darker corners of the underwater realm. Join us on a captivating journey as we unravel exciting and creepy facts about these species and their bloody behavior.

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Hyperoartia
Order: Petromyzontiformes

1. Lampreys are fish

The lamprey is one of the creepiest sea creatures in the world. Looking like an eel with an elongated and tube-like physique, this creature is commonly called “lamprey eel.” However, it is not an actual eel. It’s a fish originating from a lineage of prehistoric fish predating the age of dinosaurs.

In spite of their long-standing ancestry, lampreys have experienced only slight evolutionary modifications throughout countless millennia. Fossil evidence from around 360 million years ago reveals remarkable resemblances between lamprey species of the past and those of the present day. Enduring numerous episodes of mass extinction, lampreys have kept their essential anatomical structure.

A lamprey looks like an eel
Lampreys and eels are part of distinct animal orders. The primary contrast lies in the presence of jaws in eels and the complete absence of jaws in lampreys.

Lampreys fall under the class of Chondrichthyes, boasting skeletons crafted from cartilage akin to that of sharks. Unlike the “bony” fish counterparts, they lack the typical fins and gill covers. Lampreys and hagfish do not possess an array of scales; instead, their bodies are enveloped in a slimy mucus coating. To breathe, vampire fish use a distinct series of seven pairs of minuscule gill apertures situated behind their mouths and eyes. They don’t have lungs or ribs either. Perched atop their heads is a solitary nostril.

However, their jawless oral structure, characterized by 12 concentric rows of more than a hundred pointed, barbed teeth, sets the lampreys apart from other fish.

Its mouth is full of teeth

There are 38 known types of lampreys, with some of the species being Pacific, Arctic lamprey, brook lamprey, pouched lamprey, northern lamprey, chestnut lamprey, or American brook lamprey. They have a size ranging from 12 to 40 inches (30 to 100 cm), depending on the specific species. Upon reaching adulthood, their weight can extend up to 13 pounds (5.9 kg).

The sea lamprey is the largest species, with the biggest one reaching up to 120 cm and weight 2.3 kg.

The creatures can exhibit hues that span from olive brown to near-black, occasionally adorned with patterns resembling mottling. Their upper surface features a darker shade of skin, while the ventral side commonly retains a hue of white or gray. This adaptation may aid in camouflage and protection from predators.

The lamprey, referred to in its Latin designation as ‘Stone Licker,’ acquires its moniker from the fusion of two Latin terms: lambere, signifying “to lick,” and petra, denoting “stone.” In the realm of Japanese myths, lampreys are informally known as “eight-eyed eels” owing to the striking similarity between their gill apertures and ocular organs.

2. They’re the only vertebrates with 4 eyes

Certain animals have a fascinating and distinct trait called a parietal eye, commonly known as the third eye. Situated discreetly on the upper part of their skulls, this specialized organ is usually hidden beneath the skin.

Tuataras, frogs, sharks, lizards, salamanders, and certain fish such as lampreys exhibit this characteristic. Interestingly, within this group of creatures, lampreys are exceptional in that they possess not only a single, but a pair of parietal eyes, thus giving them a total of 4 eyes.

Lake lamprey is found on Vancouver Island.

It’s intriguing how lampreys, despite having four eyes, heavily rely on their sense of smell for both survival and navigation. Referred to as “swimming noses,” these organisms possess a remarkable ability to detect scents, allowing them to skillfully maneuver through their environment.

Their enhanced sense of smell let them easily detect prey and their potential predators, even in the darkness of night. Moreover, this remarkable olfactory ability assists lampreys in communicating with each other by transmitting signals through scents.

Chromosomes are expansive molecules housing multiple strands of DNA, harboring the complete genetic blueprint of numerous living entities. In humans, the chromosome count totals 46. Conversely, Northern lampreys boast an astonishing 164 to 174 chromosomes, positioning them as the record holders among vertebrates for the greatest chromosome count!

3. Habitat

Lampreys predominantly live in saltwater and freshwater environments, spanning numerous temperate zones. A variety of species undertake substantial journeys within the expansive ocean, with astonishing depths of up to 4000 meters (equivalent to roughly 2.5 miles).

Other species of these fish inhabit the freshwater realms of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River to engage in their reproductive process. Over time, lampreys managed to establish themselves within the Great Lakes and subsequently expanded their presence into a variety of tributaries interconnected with these expansive bodies of water.

In 1921, the completion of the Welland Canal established a convenient route, enabling these fish to traverse from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie without the obstacle of Niagara Falls. Remarkably, in just 25 years, their populations effectively spread throughout the entire expanse of the remaining Great Lakes.

Fun fact:
The Pokémon character Eelektross and its evolutionary predecessors are based on lampreys.

Within George R. R. Martin’s epic saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, the persona of Lord Wyman Manderly is playfully referred to as the “Master of Lampreys” by his loyal constituents, likely in playful reference to his rumored appreciation for lamprey pie and his robust stature.

4. They eat blood

Lampreys exhibit parasitic behavior, sustaining themselves by sucking blood and bodily fluids from other creatures. This bloodsucking mode of feeding has led to their colloquial nickname as vampire fish.

Their dietary preferences encompass a diverse array of fish species, such as sturgeon, ciscoes, burbot, whitefish, salmon, catfish, trout, and perch. Lampreys display no hesitation in pursuing larger fish in their marine habitat, such as sharks. Throughout their lives, a solitary lamprey can consume approximately 40 pounds of fish.

To get the prey, these parasites use their suction-cup force generated by their mouth to attach to their target. They firmly secure themselves onto the host’s body with their numerous sets of razor-edged teeth. Employing their sharp tongue, they cut through the host’s flesh and skin, enabling entry to the vitalizing lifeblood beneath.

Much like leeches, lampreys emit a specialized enzyme akin to an anticoagulant, ensuring the unobstructed circulation of blood and the continual maintenance of its flow.

While sucking blood of their hosts, they can kill them, particularly with smaller fish. Out of 7 fish targeted by lampreys, only approximately one of them manages to survive.

The mouth of lamprey fish

Certain types of lamprey have evolved the ability to feed on flesh alongside blood. These fish employ their teeth to gnaw away the prey’s tissue. In certain cases, a handful of species might even infiltrate the internal organs of other creatures.

In colder water, they consumed fewer fish with more time compared to the warmer water conditions.

Out of the 38 lamprey species that are recognized, only 18 are carnivores, whereas the remainder are categorized as non-carnivorous, like the American brook lamprey. These non-carnivorous species don’t eat anything and rely solely on the energy they stored from their larvae stage.

Consequently, these species’ mature individuals commonly possess diminutive mouths and underdeveloped teeth. This unique survival strategy allows them to focus solely on reproduction until they eventually starve to death. This behavior is shared by certain insects like black soldier flies, crane flies, and some moth species.

Lamprey on fish and their wounds
A victim of these fish

These monsters encounter a variety of natural predators in their original ecosystems, including fish, mammals, and avian creatures like the Northern pike. Humans are also their main predators, using them as food since ancient times. Revered by the civilizations of old, lampreys held a crucial role even during the Christian observance of Lent. In the present day, lampreys maintain their significance in contemporary gastronomies, gracing the tables of Estonia, South Korea, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Lithuania.

Their young frequently fall victim to creatures that scavenge the depths. Nevertheless, in introduced environments such as the Great Lakes, they lack natural adversaries, resulting in disruptions to the local ecology.

Fact: Leech vs lamprey
Lampreys, the pioneering vertebrates, exhibit a striking characteristic: a sizeable round sucker adorned with teeth that envelop their mouth. This adaptation enables lampreys to consume the blood of other fish species. Similarly, leeches, segmented worms of the Annelida class, thrive in freshwater environments where they extract blood from their animal hosts.

5. They don’t attack humans

Despite their array of sharp teeth, sea lampreys pose minimal threat to humans in their natural habitat. These formidable creatures mainly aim at cold-blooded prey like fish to satisfy their hunger.

Though sea lampreys typically steer clear of human interaction, they tend to cling to surfaces. This means they can stick to you if you come too close. Their strong suction and distressing bite might cause you discomfort.

The wounds caused by these species, beyond inducing intense agony, also exhibit an unsightly aspect. The bite mark will manifest as reddened with holes in a circular trajectory. To effectively remove a lamprey from your body, get the affected body part out of the water. These beings will promptly release their grip upon experiencing suffocation since they cannot live out of the water.

Certain types of vampire fish, including the sea lamprey, Caspian lamprey, and river lampreys, can be dangerous to human safety if consumed. These species are poisonous, necessitating heightened precautions during their preparation for eating.

In an intriguing historical turn, lampreys played a significant part in the downfall of King Henry I of England. The king possessed a profound fondness for this aquatic creature, disregarding his doctor’s recommendations to curtail lamprey intake on account of health considerations. Despite the fish’s elevated caloric content and plausible health hazards, King Henry I excessively eat these fish, ultimately leading to his dead.

During the times of ancient Rome, the notorious Roman speaker Vedius Pollio possessed ponds abundant with lampreys, which he utilized as a method to discipline his unsatisfactory slaves. He used to consign them to these pools as retribution for shattering a precious crystal cup.

6. They migrate like salmons

Among 18 carnivorous species of these fish, nine of them exhibit an anadromous behavior. This means these species migrate between the aquatic environments of freshwater and the ocean. Beginning their journey as hatchlings in rivers and brooks, they venture to the sea as they mature, preying on various animals along the way.

After spending around two to four years in the sea, these fish embark on a remarkable upstream migration, reminiscent of the salmon’s behavior. Triggered by changes in water temperature, they return to freshwater habitats to reproduce and lay their eggs.

One of the striking features of adult lampreys is their communication prowess. While they don’t interact extensively as larvae, adult lampreys can form aggregations and feed collectively on a common host. This cooperative feeding behavior is facilitated by their ability to emit and detect pheromones, chemical signals that serve as a means of communication.

The keen sense of smell plays a pivotal role in their life. Through the emission and perception of pheromones, these creatures coordinate their breeding periods and identify optimal egg-laying sites. Furthermore, these creatures employ this chemical communication to alert each other to potential dangers. If a single fish detects a threat, it releases warning signals that prompt nearby lampreys to exercise caution and stay away from the area.

Lampreys demonstrate a unique swimming technique that showcases their efficiency in movement. Unlike most fish that use their fins to push against the water, these fish flex their elongated bodies, creating low-pressure zones in the water that cause them to rush in and propel them forward. This unconventional approach enables lampreys to “pull” themselves through the water, conserving energy while maintaining a steady pace.

7. Reproduction

The mating season of lampreys tends to unfold during the springtime and early summer. They don’t claim specific regions for protection. Adults ready to spawn are commonly discovered in shallow depressions close to the upper section of gravel riffles around late May to early June.

These fish engage in external reproduction, with mature individuals participating in the construction of nests. The male fish create nests or spawning beds by rearranging stones within the riverbed. Subsequently, the females deposit their eggs within these nests, while the male wraps himself around the female, fertilizing these eggs.

Interestingly, a single female’s eggs can be fertilized by multiple males, contributing to the astonishing quantity of eggs produced. These females can lay from thousands to potentially even 100,000 eggs. Despite their prolific reproductive behavior, lampreys are semelparous organisms, which means they breed only once before dying.

Their life cycle encompasses distinct phases. Following hatching, the larvae called ammocoetes possess an underdeveloped mouth concealed within skin creases. These creatures sustain themselves by filter feeding on microorganisms, as well as plant and animal detritus, and organic matter. Drifting downstream to broader, more placid waters, they embed themselves into the sediment, eating and growing.

The ammocoetes phase endures for numerous years, during which these juvenile lampreys gradually form rudimentary eyes capable of perceiving light and darkness. They exhibit white bellies and backs that range from deep blackish-blue to shimmering silver.

The young will stay under the ground

The juveniles then go through an astonishing metamorphosis into their adult form, marked by the emergence of fully developed eyes, a functional mouth, and, in certain types, teeth. This transition spans multiple months.

During this time, they won’t eat anything and lose specific organs like the biliary ducts and gallbladder and acquire some new characteristics.

The lamprey lifespan varies between species, ranging from 3 – more than 10 years. The majority of their life is as larvae, undergoing a temporary transformation into adults for a short span. They engage in reproduction and then die shortly after that.

8. They’re invasive species

Sea lampreys, which have their origins in the Atlantic Ocean, have swiftly invaded throughout interconnected water routes, inflicting considerable harm on indigenous species and leading to extensive destruction. The once-prosperous ecosystem of the Great Lakes, teeming with a variety of aquatic organisms, has succumbed to an ecological emergency brought about by the proliferation of these invasive creatures.

Having unrestricted entry, these parasites rapidly multiplied throughout the entirety of the five lakes, specifically targeting economically important fish varieties such as trout, salmons, sturgeon, and perch. This aggressive invasion led to considerable decreases in indigenous fish numbers. The victims that do manage to withstand the their attacks frequently experience persistent well-being complications, adding to the disruption of the fragile ecosystem balance.

The proliferation of lampreys contributes to the flourishing of other invasive species, further intensifying the overall disturbance to the ecosystem. More than 180 species from foreign origins currently reside in the area, weaving an intricate tapestry of ecological disparities.

Within their natural environment, these vampire fish play a crucial ecological function by facilitating the processing and conveyance of nutrients. This aids in the circulation of nutrients between microorganisms, waste materials, and larger life forms.

Vampire fish at Great Lakes

Nevertheless, within the Great Lakes ecosystem, the absence of natural predators, rivals, parasites, or diseases has reshaped their ecological function. They became problems. This formerly beneficial role has now evolved into a detrimental influence, resulting in the downfall of the fish population.

Significantly impacted by the infiltration of these invasive fish, the fishing sector has experienced the harshest repercussions. Once a flourishing business, yielding approximately 15 million pounds of trout each year, this industry has suffered a remarkable plummet, dwindling to a mere fraction—only 2%—of its previous productivity.

To address their impact, organizations are utilizing a targeted lampricide named TFM in their breeding zones. This halts the growth of their larvae into destructive adults, effectively reducing their numbers while sparing other species. Yet, concerns arise about lampricide’s impact on other species.

Lamprey pheromones are harnessed by researchers to redirect these creatures from crucial habitats and areas requiring intricate treatment. The deployment of obstacles and snares serves to impede their natural locomotion. Scientists also catch lampreys and sterilize males before letting them free. On the other hand, females are got rid of to curb reproduction.



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