Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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Lamprey in the Classroom
Pacific Region, January 15, 2013
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Students are enthralled by the lamprey in their classroom
Students are enthralled by the lamprey in their classroom - Photo Credit: FWS Image: Jane Chorazy

As part of the Schoolyard Habitat Program, Pacific Middle School in Vancouver, Washington is host to a 'school' of Pacific Lamprey. Students are rearing these ammocoetes and learning about the life cycle of this pre-historic fish. Juvenile lamprey were supplied by the Columiba River Fishery Resource Office, whose staff caught them on the north fork of Eagle Creek near Estacata, Oregon. Sean Connolly of the Regional Fisheries office assisted Greg Silver and Marci Koski in catching these elusive creatues in the fall of 2012 and transporting them to the tank established in Mr. Carlson's science classroom.


The tank may appear to be empty but the students know that the young eel-like fish burrow head first into the gravel of the tank and filter feed on organic matter until they are big enough to fend for themselves against predators.

Like salmon, the Pacific lamprey is anadromous, meaning that they spend all or part of their adult life in salt water and return to fresh water streams or rivers to spawn. Scientifically known as Lampetra tridentata, the Pacific lamprey are a native species whose home range is from southern California to Alaska. These fish live in the ocean as adults for 2 to 3 years, where they are parasites who live off of fish and marine mammals. A hungry Pacific lamprey will grip onto the side of a fish with its teeth. Its tongue, which has sharp edges like a file, will make a small hole in the animal, allowing the lamprey to feed on the blood and other bodily fluid of its host.
This "three-toothed stone sucker" is very powerful. In swift currents, they often suck onto rocks with their mouth so that they can rest and hold fast in the fast current. They swim by wriggling back and forth in the water until they reach other rock, thus carrying them upstream.
At first glance, you may think it's an eel or even a snake, but it's not. These fish have no scales and have cartilage instead of bones. Pacific lamprey have two dorsal fins, large blue eyes, have one nostril on top of their head and seven gills on each side. Adult lamprey can grow up to 30 inches long and change color - they are a dark bluish grey when in freshwater and turn reddish brown when spawning. After spending several years in the ocean they enter freshwater between July and September every year and spawn the following spring. Like salmon, lampreys do not feed during their upstream migration and usually die within a few days of spawning. Mating pairs of lampreys dig shallow nests in the gravel by swishing their tails. They can also move rocks with their mouths. A female can lay 10,000 to 200,000 eggs.
Once the eggs hatch, the small blind larvae, or ammocoetes, burrow themselves in the fine sediments of the rivers and streams where they feed and grow for up to six years. Durring this process the ammocoetes undergo a metamorphosis or transformation into a "smolt"-like stage call macropthalmia, where they develop eyes and a sucking disc with teeth. Only then do they emerge from the sediment and migrate downstream to the ocean.
Native Americans of the mid-Columbia River basin have a special relationship to this "eel", which they use for religious purposes or for food. Tribal members fish for these animals by hand, with a dip net or a long pole with a hook. Especially good fishing can be found at sites where lampreys gather, such as just below a water fall or rapids.
The focus of the Lamprey in the Classroom project is explaining why these fish are so important. Children learn about the medicinal benefits provided from the oil of this species which was used by Tribal members to condition hair and to cure ear aches.
Students learn why lamprey populations are declining and how we may save this species from habitat destruction, water pollution, and migration obstructions like the dams along the Columbia River. Urban development, forestry and agricultural practices have resulted in a loss of wetlands, side channels and bearver ponds, which the Pacific lamprey ammocoetes prefer. Identifying the hazards to the wellfare of this species is the first step in restoring this anchient species.

Connecting People with Nature and Lamprey in the Classroom
Contact Info: Jane Chorazy, 503-231-2251, Jane_Chorazy@fws.gov
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