FWS Focus

Overview

Characteristics
Overview

The sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) is a fish that is native to the Atlantic Ocean. Petromyzon means sucker of stone and marinus means of the sea. Sea lampreys range throughout the Eastern U.S. and Western Europe coasts and the Great Lakes (Brant, 2019). They have remained largely unchanged for more than 340 million years (Paleozoic Era) and survived through at least four major extinction events (GLFC, 2021). Sea lampreys are unique from many other fish species in that they do not have jaws or other bony structures. Instead, they possess a cartilaginous skeleton and a large oral disk filled with sharp, horn-shaped teeth that surround a toothed tongue (Hardisty and Potter, 1971). The oral disk allows them to attach and the toothed tongue allows them to rasp a hole into the side of a host fish and feed on it’s blood.

Brant, C.O. 2019. Great Lakes sea lamprey: the 70 year war on a biological invader. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

GLFC. 2021. Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Sea lamprey: A Great Lakes invader. http://www.glfc.org/sea-lamprey.php. [accessed 29 November  2021].

Hardisty, M.W., and I.C. Potter. 1971. The biology of lampreys, volume 1. Academic Press, University of California. 305 p.

Scientific Name

Petromyzon marinus
Common Name
sea lamprey
lake lamprey
Kingdom

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Lifecycle

Characteristics
Lifecycle

The sea lamprey has a complex lifecycle consisting of four stages [egg, larvae (filter feeder), juvenile (parasitic), and adult (spawning)].

Eggs are deposited into nests during the adult sea lamprey spawning act. Sea lamprey pro-larvae emerge from nests 11-31 days after spawning (Applegate, 1950; Piavis, 1960; Manion and McLain, 1971). They are carried downstream by the current and dive to soft stream substrate where they rapidly burrow by undulating in a figure eight motion with the posterior third of their body. Burrows are crescent or ‘U’ shaped and range from 1.3- 5.2 centimeters in depth (Applegate, 1950). Larger larvae make deeper burrows. Preferred larval habitat consists primarily of silt with sand and detritus as secondary components. The sand fraction is mainly comprised of very fine, fine, and medium sands. Coarse sands, gravel, or rubble may be present, but their contribution is minor. Surface cover is often provided by woody debris or aquatic macrophytes (GLFC, 2021). Over time, larvae drift downstream. Movement is related to temperature and high water levels. Manion and McLain (1971) reported that most downstream movement occurred during floods during the months of March, April and May. Larger larvae tended to migrate to deeper water in substrate covered by course organic debris. 

Larvae develop in the substrate for about 4-17 years. During this life stage they filter feed on small particles such as diatoms (Manion, 1967), detritus, and bacteria (Bowen et al., 1998) from the water column immediately above the substrate and to a lesser degree, from the sediment (Moore and Mallatt, 1980).

Larval sea lamprey then begin a dramatic metamorphosis where they develop eyes, an oral disk mouth covered in pointy, hooked teeth, and a tongue covered with bony plates ('toothed'). Fully metamorphosed lamprey are called juveniles. The juvenile migrate out of their natal stream and into the lake or ocean environment. Here they attach to other fishes with their oral disk and teeth, and feed on the blood of their host. This stage lasts for 12- 18 months and a single parasitic sea lamprey in the Great Lakes can destroy 19.3 kg of fish (Swink, 2003).

During the winter and early spring, juvenile sea lampreys stop feeding and begin to search for a suitable spawning stream. They enter stream, sexually mature into spawning adults, and spawn during the spring and summer. Shortly after spawning both male and female fall off of the nest, drift downstream, and die (Applegate, 1950)

 

 

Applegate, V.C., 1950. Natural history of the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) in Michigan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Scientific Report Fish 55, 237 p. Washington DC, USA.

Bowen, S.H., T.M. Sutton, M.R. Yap, B.A. Young, and R.D. Wagner. 1998.Feeding Ecology and habitat use by larval lampreys in Great Lake tributaries. Great Lakes Fishery Commission Completion Report, Ann Arbor, Michigan. 44 pp.

GLFC. 2019. Larval assessment sampling protocol using the AbP-2 backpack electrofisher in Great Lakes Streams. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Last edited March 2019 2021. Great Lakes Fishery Commission. SLC 04-001.10. http://www.glfc.org/search.php?q=Larval+Assessment+sampling+protocol&x=0&y=0#~:text=www.glfc.org › sop2018 › app › app s Larval Assessment Sampling Protocol.  [accessed 11 November  2021].

GLFC. 2021. Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Sea lamprey: A Great Lakes invader. http://www.glfc.org/sea-lamprey.php. [accessed 29 November  2021].

Manion, P.J. 1967. Diatoms as food of larval lampreys in a small tributary of northern Lake Michigan. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 96: 224-226.

Manion, P.J. and A.L. McLain. 1971. Biology of larval sea lampreys (petromyzon marinus) of the 1960 year class, isolated in the Big Garlic River, Michigan, 1960-65. Great Lakes Fish. Comm. Tech. Rep. No. 16.

Moore, J.W., and J.M. Mallatt. 1980. Feeding of Larval Lamprey. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 37: 1658-1664.

Swink, W.D. 2003. Host selection and lethality of attacks by sea lampreys (petromyzon marinus) in laboratory studies. J. Great Lakes Res. 29 (Suppl. 1):307-319

Reproduction

The sea lamprey has a complex lifecycle consisting of four stages [egg, larvae (filter feeder), juvenile (parasitic), and adult (spawning)].

The semelparous adults ascend Atlantic coast and Great Lake streams to spawn during early spring (April; Manion and Hanson, 1980). Earlier migrants are less sexually mature than those who arrive later to the spawning grounds. Prior to spawning, males develop a very pronounced median, rope-like ridge their back (Applegate, 1950). 

Nest construction begins when the water temperature rise over 4.5º C (Becker, 1983). Males clear gravel, rubble, and small stones from a circular area and deposit them in a crescent ring along the downstream margin of the clearing. Gravel (0.33-5.10 centimeters in diameter) along with a small amount of sand is required for nest construction. Each stone is individually picked up and moved with the sea lamprey’s oral disk. Additionally, current must consistently flow in one direction over the nest. Female sea lampreys are known to assist in nest construction or construct nests later in the season (Applegate, 1950).

During the spawning act, a female will anchor firmly to the bottom of the nest by attaching to a large piece of gravel with her oral disk. The male uses his oral disk to attach to the dorsal side of the female, close to the head and gills. The male immediately wraps the posterior third of his body around the female so that their vents are approximated. Both individuals rapidly vibrate their bodies for 2-5 seconds to extrude their eggs and milt, after which the male releases the female. The eggs are carried by the current and lodge in the interstices of the nest’s downstream gravel rim. Intervals between spawning acts last about 2-3 minutes, 10 minutes and longer when they are close to being spent. Both the male and female add more stones to the downstream rim of the nest between each spawning act or between two to three spawning acts. Spawning can last from 16 hours to 3.5 days (Applegate, 1950).

Once spawning is complete, one or both lamprey anchor to a rock near the upstream end of the nest and violently vibrated to dislodge sand from the bottom of the nest. The sand fills the space between the gravel, and adheres to and imbeds the eggs in place. Females drop away from the nests immediately after spawning and drift into pools where they die. Males can remain in the nest, curled into the deepest depression, for 1-3 days. Eventually, they also drop downstream when they lose strength and die.

Applegate, V.C., 1950. Natural history of the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) in Michigan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Scientific Report Fish 55, 237 p. Washington DC, USA.

Becker, G.C. 1983. Fishes of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI

Manion, P.J., and L.H. Hanson, 1980. Spawning behavior and fecundity of lampreys from theupper three Great Lakes. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci., Vol. 37: 1635-1640

 

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics
Habitat

Larval sea lamprey develop in streams. Preferred habitat consists primarily of silt with sand and detritus as secondary components. The sand fraction is mainly comprised of very fine, fine, and medium sands. Coarse sands, gravel, or rubble may be present, but their contribution is minor. Surface cover is often provided by woody debris or aquatic macrophytes (GLFC, 2021).

Parasitic sea lamprey are attached to, and feed on fish in lake and ocean environments (Brant, 2019). 

Brant, C.O. 2019. Great Lakes sea lamprey: the 70 year war on a biological invader. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

GLFC. 2021. Larval assessment sampling protocol using the AbP-2 backpack electrofisher in Great Lakes Streams. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Last edited March 2019. Great Lakes Fishery Commission. SLC 04-001.10. http://www.glfc.org/search.php?q=Larval+Assessment+sampling+protocol&x=0&y=0#:~:text=www.glfc.org › sop2018 › app › app s Larval Assessment Sampling Protocol.  [accessed 11 November  2021].

Marine

Of or relating to the sea.

Lake

A considerable inland body of standing water.

River or Stream

A natural body of running water.

Coastal

The land near a shore.

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics
Food

Sea lampreys spend 12-18 months in the parasitic stage where they feed on other fish (Applegate, 1950). They attached to host fish with their oral suction disk and hooked teeth that embed in the flesh and maintain their position (Potter and Hilliard, 1987). The tongue is located in the center of the oral disk and has two sets of plates that form cutting edges (teeth). The tongue moves in a piston motion and the plates rasp a hole in the side of the fish. Lamphredin, a lamprey anticoagulant, is secreted and has cytolytic effects on the integument, blood vessels, and connective tissue of the host. However, Farmer et al. (1973) found that sea lampreys almost exclusively consume blood. It is estimated that single Great Lakes sea lamprey can destroy 19.3 kg of fish (Swink, 2003) in its parasitic stage.

A sea lamprey can feed on any species of fish provided there is sufficient area for them to attach (Surface, 1898). Farmer and Beamish (1973) concluded that the thermal distribution of host species in lakes and a fish’s relative size is important in determining lamprey predation.

In the Great Lakes, parasitic sea lamprey predate lake trout (salvelinus namaycush), burbot (Lota lota), rainbow trout (Salmo gairdneri), lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), lake herring (Coregonus artedii), ciscoes (Coregonus spp.) (Farmer, 1980), and lake sturgeon (Holly et al., 2009). In the Atlantic Ocean, they are known to attack Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus harengus), haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), pollock (Polachius virens), red hake (Urophycis chuss), sturgeons (Acipenser spp.), Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus), swordfish (Xiphias gladius), and basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) [Bigelow and Schroeder, 1948; Scott and Crossman, 1973]. In the Lake Cayuga Basin, brown bullhead (Ictalurus nebulosus), suckers (Catastomus spp.), carp (Cyprinus carpio), chain pickerel (Esox niger), northern pike (Esox lucius), walleye (Stizostedion vitreum vitreum), and long nose gar (Lepisosteus oseus) were some of the fish predated by sea lamprey (Surface, 1898).

Larval sea lamprey burrowed in the sediment are filter feeders. When feeding, their oral hood is positioned at or near the sediment surface, facing upstream. Water is pumped through the oral hood and expelled through the gill openings. Potential food items are drawn in via the larvae's unidirectional respiratory current (Applegate, 1950). Mucus produced serves to trap, aggregate, and transport food particles (Mallatt, 1981). Food items include small particles such as diatoms (Manion, 1967), detritus, and bacteria (Bowen et al., 1998) from the water column immediately above the substrate and to a lesser degree, from the sediment (Moore and Mallatt, 1980).

 

Applegate, V.C. 1950. Natural history of the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) in Michigan streams. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Scientific Report: Fisheries: 55, 237 p. Washington DC, USA

Bigelow, H.B. and W.C. Schroeder. 1948. Fishes of the western North Atlantic. 2. Cyclostomes. Mem. Sears Fdn, Mar. Res. 1:29-58

Bowen, S.H., T.M. Sutton, M.R. Yap, B.A. Young, and R.D. Wagner. 1998.Feeding Ecology and habitat use by larval lampreys in Great Lake tributaries. Great Lakes Fishery Commission Completion Report, Ann Arbor, Michigan. 44 pp.

Farmer, G.J., and F.W.H. Beamish. 1973. Sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) predation on freshwater teleosts. J. Fish. Res. Board Can. 30: 601-605

Farmer, G.J. 1980. Biology and physiology of feeding in adult lamprey. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. Vol. 37: 1751-1761

Holly, K.P., T.M. Sutton, and W.D. Swink. 2009. Lethality of sea lamprey parasitism on lake sturgeon. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 138(5): 1065-1075

Mallett, J. 1981. The suspension feeding mechanism of the larval lamprey Petromyzon marinus. J. Zool. Lond. 194: 103-142

Manion, P.J. 1967. Diatoms as food of larval lampreys in a small tributary of northern Lake Michigan. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 96: 224-226

Moore, J.W., and J.M. Mallatt. 1980. Feeding of larval lamprey. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 37: 1658-1664

Potter, I.C., and R.W. Hilliard. 1987. A proposal for the functional and phylogenetic significance of differences in the dentition of lampreys (Agnatha: Petromyzontiformes). J. Zool. Lond. 212: 713-737

Scott, W.B., and E.J. Crossman. 1973. Freshwater fishes of Canada. Bull. Fish. Res. Board Can. 184:966 p

Surface, H. A. 1898. The lampreys of central New York. Bull. U.S. Fish Comm. 17: 209-215

Swink, W.D. 2003. Host selection and lethality of attacks by sea lampreys (petromyzon marinus) in laboratory studies. J. Great Lakes Res. 29 (Suppl. 1): 307-319

 

 

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics
Size & Shape

The sea lamprey has a complex lifecycle consisting of four stages [egg, larvae (filter feeder), juvenile (parasitic), and adult (spawning)].

Adults

  • Cylindrical
  • Length: 305-610 millimeters
  • 2 dorsal fins well separated
  • Spade shape caudal fin
  • Circumoral teeth on either side of opening, bicuspid
  • Teeth in lateral rows of 5-7
  • Breeding males develop prominent rope-like ridge on the back

Larvae

  • Cylindrical
  • 11 millimeters up to 200 millimeters (Applegate, 1950). Upper size varies and is dependent on the stream environment (temperature and food).
  • 2 dorsal fins well separated

Eggs

  • 0.8 - 1.3 millimeters in diameter (Parker and Lennon, 1956)
  • Sticky

Juveniles

  • 100 - 200 millimeters in length
  • Newley transformed juveniles are grayish blue dorsally grading to white on the belly.
  • 2 dorsal fins well separated

Becker, G.C. 1983. Fishes of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI

Parker, P.S., and R.E. Lennon. 1956. Biology of the sea lamprey in its parasitic phase. U.S. Fish and Wildl. Serv. Res. Rep. 44. Iii+ 32 pp.

 

Color & Pattern

Adults

  • Dark brown to black and marbled dorsally
  • Light yellow to pale brown ventrally.
  • Yellow variants have marbled pattern similar to the darker variants.

Larvae

  • Brown dorsally and on sides, lighter ventrally
  • Upper lip and suborbital region pigmented
  • Branchial region above the branchial grove pigmented, except a light colored narrow band
  • Caudal peduncle entirely pigmented

Juveniles

  • Newly transformed juveniles are grayish blue dorsally grading to white on the belly.

Becker, G.C. 1983. Fishes of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI

Weight

The sea lamprey has a complex lifecycle consisting of four stages [egg, larvae (filter feeder), juvenile (parasitic), and adult (spawning)].

Adults

  • Length: 305-610 millimeters

Becker, G.C. 1983. Fishes of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI

Geography

Characteristics
Range

Sea lampreys range throughout the Eastern U.S. and Western Europe coasts in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Great Lakes (Brant, 2019). 

The sea lamprey is native to the Atlantic Ocean. They invaded the Finger Lakes of New York and then Lake Ontario during the mid-1800s via manmade canals. The invasion of the upper Great Lakes commenced after the Welland Canal underwent a major renovation so that ships could bypass Niagara Falls. Prior to that, Niagara Falls served as a natural barrier to Atlantic sea lampreys. However, once sea lampreys gained access, they quickly spread and established in all of the lakes. Sea lampreys were first observed in Lake Erie during 1921, in Lake Michigan during 1936, in Lake Huron during 1937, and in Lake Superior during 1946 (Applegate, 1950). Their success in the Great Lakes can be attributed to hundreds of stream miles of excellent spawning and larval habitat, the abundance of host fishes at the time of invasion, and a lack of natural predators. Additionally, female sea lamprey are highly fecund and can produce up to 100,000 eggs (GLFC, 2021).

 

Applegate, V.C., 1950. Natural history of the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) in Michigan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Scientific Report Fish 55, 237 p. Washington DC, USA.

Brant, C.O. 2019. Great Lakes sea lamprey: the 70 year war on a biological invader. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

GLFC. 2021. Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Sea lamprey: A Great Lakes invader. http://www.glfc.org/sea-lamprey.php. [accessed 29 November  2021].

 

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