Lampreys (petromyzontidae) are native to parts of the Adirondacks. They are among the most primitive fish in the world and can be distinguished from eels by their lack of jaws and paired fins. Most species of Lamprey have a parasitic life stage, where they will attach themselves to other fish like Lake Trout and “rasp” through the skin using their teeth and tongue. Within the Adirondacks three species can be found within Lake Champlain and some of its tributaries, these include: Silver lamprey, Sea lamprey, and the non-parasitic American Brook lamprey.
Lampreys have an elongate shape with seven pairs of round gill openings. They have a single nostril that is located in front of the eyes. All species have similar life histories; in the spring, they move into streams to spawn. Adults build nests by moving pebbles on the substrate to form a depression in which to lay their eggs.
Following spawning the adults die. The young or ammocoetes will then drift downstream until they find a muddy area and they will burrow in, where they will filter feed. This larval stage may last upwards of several years. At this stage of development the Lampreys eyes are covered and their mouths are covered, larval Lamprey feed by filtering particles from the water using tentacles. As the lamprey mature to adulthood, the mouth becomes a round sucker with rows of teeth. The species that are parasitic will find a host species and continue to grow, while the non-parasitic species stop feeding as their “guts” degenerate.
The American Brook lamprey young (ammocoetes) feed on algae, pollen and detritus, as adults they are not parasitic. Silver lamprey and sea lamprey young will feed on plankton and detritus, while the adults will attach themselves to a variety of fish species, including: trout, white suckers, smelt, brown bullheads, rock bass, and even sturgeons and gars.
Parasitic Lamprey can have a major impact on other fish communities and the local economy. Generally 40-60% of the host species will not survive being fed on by the lamprey. The Sea Lamprey in Lake Champlain has caused damage to the point that multiple agencies both within Vermont and New York have started conducting control methods on this native nuisance species. One method of control is the application of lampricides into streams that the young are found in, thereby killing them before they have a chance to mature.
For more information on Lamprey visit the following websites:
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Lake Champlain Basin Program
Photo: Top; Lamprey, Bottom; Lamprey feeding on a Lake Trout courtesy of Wikipidia.
Corrina Parnapy is a Lake George native, Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Lake George Fishing Alliance and a naturalist who writes about the environment and Adirondack natural history for the Adirondack Almanack.