Lampreys: Terrifying Alien Monsters or Fascinating Ancient Fishes?

Canadian Museum of Nature Blog

Lampreys get a bad rap.Their tooth-filled oral disksdefinitely look scary. Elongate squirmy exoparasites aretrulyfrightening. But here’s the thing:theseancientfishesare ancient survivors thatareakey component of freshwater ecosystems.

Experts disagree, but there areanywherebetween42and48 species,all butfivefoundin northern temperate areas. They occur from Alaska to Newfoundland in North America,and Portugal toSiberia inAsia.Although theymaylook like eels, they are very different from modern bony fishes.These cartilaginous fisheslack jaws, scales,and pectoral and pelvic fins.Most are small, around 15 cm,butone species—the Sea Lamprey—reaches120cmin marine environments. Different species can be identified by tooth pattern.

A cylindrical creature with circular rows of teeth at one end.
The oral disc of a Sea Lamprey collectedat theSt. Lawrence River at Saint-Vallier, Québec. Thisis anadult specimen of the seagoing form ofPetromyzon marinus.Image: Brian Coad © Canadian Museum of Nature

During their life cycle,lampreyspass through two stages:larval and adult. The larval form—called anammocoete—burrows in mud and silty areas in rivers and streams.They live there for anywhere between two and 19 years, filtering feeding microbes…

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