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A Historic Moment for a Pre-historic Fish
Pacific Region, June 12, 2013
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Travis Collier, A FWS biologist at the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, shows Discovery School students a female Lamprey that he is preparing to spawn. A female normally lays up to 100,000-200,000 eggs.
Travis Collier, A FWS biologist at the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, shows Discovery School students a female Lamprey that he is preparing to spawn. A female normally lays up to 100,000-200,000 eggs. - Photo Credit: Susan C Peterson/FWS
Travis has temporarily anesthetized a male Lamprey in preparation of fertilizing the Lamprey's eggs.
Travis has temporarily anesthetized a male Lamprey in preparation of fertilizing the Lamprey's eggs. - Photo Credit: Susan C Peterson/FWS
With the Lamprey eggs now fertilized, Travis places them on a screen where they will be incubated for the next several months.  The ammocoetes will be raised and ultimately released into Icicle Creek.
With the Lamprey eggs now fertilized, Travis places them on a screen where they will be incubated for the next several months. The ammocoetes will be raised and ultimately released into Icicle Creek. - Photo Credit: Susan C Peterson/FWS

The Pacific Lamprey (Lampetra tridentata) is one of the oldest fish (think prehistoric) in our riverine system. To someone who is not familiar with them, they are easily mistaken for eels with round, elongated bodies, with lengths up to 30 inches long and blue eyes. But, Lampreys lack jaws, bones and paired fins of true fishes, nor do they have scales or gill openings. Resembling something out of an early monster movie, they have a round sucker-like mouth with sharp teeth, the pattern of the teeth are one key in identifying species.

 

Moving beyond their appearance, you will find these fish are fascinating. Pacific lampreys are anadromous, beginning their life cycle in freshwater where an adult female can lay over 100,000 eggs. The male and female build their nest (redd) by using their tails and moving gravel with their mouth. The adults die within days after spawning.

The eggs hatch into larvae (ammocoetes), drifting downstream until finding sufficient silt/sand habitat where they filter feed on algae and diatoms for 3-7 years. This stage is a critical niche within our river systems as the larva filter microscopic plants and animals from the bottom sediments, effectively “cleaning” the stream.

Developmental changes continue to occur throughout the months and the macropthalmia (juvenile stage) migrate to the ocean where they mature into adults. In the adult stage, Lampreys are parasitic and develop teeth to help them feed on larger prey such as salmon or marine mammals. After 2-3 years, the adults migrate to freshwater to spawn and like salmon, cease to eat and undergo physical changes as they migrate upstream to spawn.

Lampreys have played an important part in our ecosystems, especially to native peoples of the Pacific coast and interior Columbia River basin. But, until recently the Lamprey’s story looked like it was coming to a close.

Dams, culverts and other artificial barriers have impeded upstream migration and there are very few populations that exist above major dams. Poor water quality, habitat degradation, ocean conditions and predation by non-native fish have further devastated their numbers.

The Yakama Nation has been working on programs to save the Lamprey and several other programs are underway to help bring back the Pacific Lamprey.
The first fish is now artificially spawned at LNFH with more opportunities to come. With time we hope that the Pacific Lamprey once again is populating the Icicle and Wenatchee rivers and occupying a special niche in restoring the natural habitat.


Contact Info: Susan Peterson, 509-548-6662 ext 231, susan_peterson@fws.gov
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