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Lampreys (sometimes also called lamprey eels) are an order of jawless fish, the adults of which are characterized by a toothed, funnel-like sucking mouth. The common name "lamprey" is derived from lampetra, which translated from Latin means "stone licker" (lambere "to lick" + Greek πέτρα "stone").

While lampreys are well known for those species which bore into the flesh of other fish to suck their blood, most species of lamprey are not parasitic and never feed on other fish.[1] The lampreys are a very ancient lineage of vertebrates, though their exact relationship to hagfishes and jawed vertebrates is still a matter of dispute.


File:Lamprey anatomy.png

Basic external anatomy of a lamprey

File:Boca de lamprea.1 - Aquarium Finisterrae.JPG

Mouth of a sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus

File:Lamprey Larva x sect pharynx labelled.png

Microscopic cross section through the pharynx of a larva from an unknown lamprey species.

Adults physically resemble eels, in that they have no scales, and can range anywhere from 13 to 100 centimetres (5 to 40 inches) long. Lacking paired fins, adult lampreys have large eyes, one nostril on the top of the head, and seven gill pores on each side of the head. The unique morphological characteristics of lampreys, such as their cartilaginous skeleton, suggest they are the sister taxon (see cladistics) of all living jawed vertebrates (gnathostomes), and are usually considered the most basal group of the Vertebrata. Parasitic lampreys feed on prey as adults by attaching their mouthparts to the target animal's body, then using their teeth to cut through surface tissues until they reach blood and body fluid. Although attacks on humans do occur,[2] they will generally not attack humans unless starved.[3][4] Non-parasitic lampreys, which are usually freshwater species, do not feed as adults; they live off reserves acquired as ammocoetes, which they obtain through filter feeding.[5]

Hagfish, which superficially resemble lampreys, are the sister taxon of the true vertebrates (lampreys and gnathostomes).[4]

Lampreys provide valuable insight into the evolution of the adaptive immune system, as they possess a convergently evolved adaptive immunity with cells that function like the T cells and B cells seen in higher vertebrates. Lamprey leukocytes express surface variable lymphocyte receptors (VLRs) generated from somatic recombination of leucine-rich repeats gene segments in a recombination activating gene-independent manner.[6][7] Northern Lampreys (family Petromyzontidae) have the highest number of chromosomes (164-174) among vertebrates.[8]

Pouched Lamprey (Geotria australis) larvae also have a very high tolerance for free iron in the body, and have well-developed biochemical systems for detoxification of the large quantities of these metal ions.[9]


The lamprey has been extensively studied because its relatively simple brain is thought in many respects to reflect the brain structure of early vertebrate ancestors. Beginning in the 1970s, Sten Grillner and his colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have used the lamprey as a model system to work out the fundamental principles of motor control in vertebrates, starting in the spinal cord and working toward the brain.[10] In a series of studies, they found neural circuits within the spinal cord are capable of generating the rhythmic motor patterns that underlie swimming, these circuits are controlled by specific locomotor areas in the brainstem and midbrain, and these areas, in turn, are controlled by higher brain structures, including the basal ganglia and tectum. In a study of the lamprey tectum published in 2007,[11] they found electrical stimulation could elicit eye movements, lateral bending movements, or swimming activity, and the type, amplitude, and direction of movement varied as a function of the location within the tectum that was stimulated. These findings were interpreted as consistent with the idea that the tectum generates goal-directed locomotion in the lamprey as it does in other species.

Lampreys are used as a model organism in biomedical research where their large reticulospinal axons are used to investigate synaptic transmission.[12] The axons of lamprey are particularly large and allow for microinjection of substances for experimental manipulation.


File:Petromyzon marinus.jpg

Sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus

Lampreys live mostly in coastal and fresh waters, although some species (e.g. Geotria australis, Petromyzon marinus, Entosphenus tridentatus) travel significant distances in the open ocean, as evidenced by their lack of reproductive isolation between populations. Some species are found in land-locked lakes. They are found in most temperate regions except those in Africa. Their larvae (ammocoetes) have a low tolerance for high water temperatures, which may explain why they are not distributed in the tropics.

Lamprey distribution may be adversely affected by over-fishing and pollution. In Britain, at the time of the conquest, Lampreys were found as far upstream in the River Thames as Petersham.[13] Reduction of pollution in the Thames and River Wear has led to recent sightings in London and Chester-le-Street.[14][15]

Distribution may also be adversely affected by dams and other construction projects disrupting migration routes, obstructing access to spawning grounds. Conversely, the construction of artificial channels has exposed new habitats for colonisation notably in North America where Sea lampreys have become a significant introduced pest in the Great Lakes.

Life cycle

Adult lampreys spawn in rivers and then die. The young larvae, also called "ammocoetes", spend several years in the rivers, where they live burrowed in fine sediment, filter feeding on detritus and microorganisms.[16] Then, ammocoetes undergo a metamorphosis that lasts several months. Some species do not feed after metamorphosis, while others migrate to the sea or lakes,[17] where they feed on different species of fish[18] and even on marine mammals.[19] Species whose adults migrate to the sea begin preying on other fish soon after metamorphosis, even as they begin swimming downstream.[20]

Taxonomy and systematics


Several species of European lampreys

File:Ammocoetes-l reissneri-01.jpg

Ammocoetes larva of Lethenteron reissneri

File:Jamoytius kerwoodi.jpg

Jamoytius kerwoodi, a putative lamprey relative from the Silurian


Mayomyzon, one of the oldest known lampreys

Taxonomists place lampreys and hagfish in the subphylum Vertebrata of the phylum Chordata, which also includes the invertebrate subphyla Tunicata (sea-squirts) and the fish-like Cephalochordata (lancelets or Amphioxus). Recent molecular and morphological phylogenetic studies place lampreys and hagfish in the superclass Agnatha or Agnathostomata (both meaning without jaws). The other vertebrate superclass is Gnathostomata (jawed mouths) and includes the classes Chondrichthyes (sharks), Osteichthyes (bony fishes), Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves (birds), and Mammalia.

Some researchers have classified lampreys as the sole surviving representatives of the Linnean class Cephalaspidomorphi.[21] Cephalaspidomorpha is sometimes given as a subclass of the Cephalaspidomorphi. Fossil evidence now suggests lampreys and cephalaspids acquired their shared characters by convergent evolution.[22][23] As such, many newer works, such as the fourth edition of Fishes of the World, classify lampreys in a separate group called Hyperoartia or Petromyzontida,[21] but whether this is actually a clade is disputed. Namely, it has been proposed that the non-lamprey "Hyperoartia" are in fact closer to the jawed vertebrates.

The debate about their systematics notwithstanding, lampreys constitute a single order Petromyzontiformes. Sometimes still seen is the alternative spelling "Petromyzoniformes", based on the argument that the type genus is Petromyzon and not "Petromyzonta" or similar. Throughout most of the 20th century, both names were used pretty much indiscriminately, even by the same author in subsequent publications. In the mid-1970s, the ICZN was called upon to fix one name or the other, and after much debate had to resolve the issue by voting. Thus, in 1980 the spelling with a "t" won out, and in 1981 it became official that all higher-level taxa based on Petromyzon have to start with "Petromyzont-".

The following taxonomy is based upon the treatment by FishBase as of April 2012. Within the order, there are 10 living genera in three families. Two of the latter are monotypic at genus level today, and in one of them a single living species is recognized (though it may be a cryptic species complex):[24]

  • Family Geotriidae – Pouched Lamprey
    • Genus Geotria
  • Family Mordaciidae – southern topeyed lampreys
    • Genus Mordacia
  • Family Petromyzontidae – northern lampreys
    • Genus Caspiomyzon
    • Genus Entosphenus
    • Genus Eudontomyzon
    • Genus Ichthyomyzon
    • Genus Lampetra
    • Genus Lethenteron
    • Genus Petromyzon
    • Genus Tetrapleurodon

Fossil record

Lamprey fossils are rare because cartilage does not fossilize as readily as bone. The first fossil lampreys were originally found in Early Carboniferous limestones, marine sediments laid down more than 300 million years ago in North America: Mayomyzon pieckoensis and Hardistiella montanensis, from the Mississippian Mazon Creek lagerstätte and the Bear Gulch Limestone sequence.

In the 22 June 2006 issue of Nature, Mee-mann Chang and colleagues reported on a fossil lamprey from the same Early Cretaceous lagerstätten that have yielded feathered dinosaurs, in the Yixian Formation of Inner Mongolia, laid down around some 120 million years ago. The new species, morphologically similar to Carboniferous and modern forms, was given the name Mesomyzon mengae ("Meng Qingwen's Mesozoic lamprey"). The exceedingly well-preserved fossil showed a well-developed sucking oral disk, a relatively long branchial apparatus showing branchial basket, seven gill pouches, gill arches and even the impressions of gill filaments, and about 80 myomeres of its musculature. Unlike the North American fossils, its habitat was almost certainly freshwater.[25]

Months later, in the 27 October issue of Nature, a fossil lamprey even older than the Mazon Creek genera, dated 360 million years ago, was reported from Witteberg Group rocks near Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. This species, dubbed Priscomyzon riniensis still strongly resembled modern lampreys despite its Devonian age.[26][27][28]

As food

File:Portuguese Lamprey rice.jpg

Portuguese lamprey rice

Lampreys have long been used as food for humans. They were highly appreciated by ancient Romans. During the Middle Ages, they were widely eaten by the upper classes throughout Europe, especially during fasting periods, since their taste is much meatier than that of most true fish. King Henry I of England is said to have died from eating "a surfeit of lampreys."[29]

On 4 March 1953, Queen Elizabeth II's coronation pie was made by the Royal Air Force using lampreys.[30]

Especially in southwestern Europe (Portugal, Spain, and France), larger lampreys are still a highly prized delicacy. Petromyzon marinus, the sea lamprey, is the most sought species in Portugal and one of only two that can legally bear the commercial name "lamprey" (lampreia): the other one being Lampetra fluviatilis, the European river lamprey, both according to Portaria (Government regulation no. 587/2006, from 22 June). Overfishing has reduced their number in those parts. Lampreys are also consumed in Sweden, Finland, Russia, New Zealand, the Baltic countries, Japan and South Korea.

The mucus and serum of several Lamprey species including the Caspian lamprey (Caspiomyzon wagneri), River Lampreys (Lampetra fluviatilis and L. planeri) and Sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus), are known to be toxic, and require thorough cleaning before cooking and consumption.[31][32]

As pests

File:Sea Lamprey fish.jpg

Lampreys attached to a lake trout

Sea lampreys have become a major plague in the North American Great Lakes after artificial canals allowed their entry during the early 20th century. They are considered an invasive species, have no natural enemies in the lakes and prey on many species of commercial value, such as lake trout. Lampreys are now found mostly in the streams that feed the lakes, with special barriers to prevent the upstream movement of adults, or by the application of toxicants called lampricides, which are harmless to most other aquatic species. However, those programs are complicated and expensive, and do not eradicate the lampreys from the lakes, but merely keep them in check. New programs are being developed, including the use of chemically sterilized male lampreys in a method akin to the sterile insect technique. Research currently under way on the use of pheromones and how they may be used to disrupt the life cycle has met with some success.[33][34] Control of Sea lampreys in the Great Lakes is conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The work is coordinated by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

Lake Champlain, bordered by New York State, Vermont, and Quebec, and New York's Finger Lakes are also home to high populations of sea lampreys that warrant control. Lake Champlain's lamprey control program is managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. New York's Finger Lakes sea lamprey control program is managed solely by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.


Lampreys are called "nine-eyed eels" (i.e., per side) from a counting of their seven external gill slits on a side with one eye and the nostril. A German word for lamprey is Neunauge, which means "nine-eye".


  1. (1971) The Biology of Lampreys, 1, Academic Press.
  2. Template:Cite magazine
  3. Liem, Karel F.; William E. Bemis, Warren F. Walker, Jr., Lance Grande (2001). Functional Anatomy of the Vertebrates, The United States of America: Thomson: Brooks/Cole.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Haaramo, Mikko Mikko's Phylogeny Archive. URL accessed on 26 January 2009.
  5. Alaska Department of Fish and Game (2004). Lampreys. URL accessed on 8 July 2012.
  6. DOI:10.1038/nature02740
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  7. (2007). Antigen-receptor genes of the agnathan lamprey are assembled by a process involving copy choice. Nature immunology 8 (2): 206–13.
  8. Template:FishBase family
  9. (1988). Exceptional iron concentrations in larval lampreys (Geotria australis) and the activities of superoxide radical detoxifying enzymes. Biochemical Journal 252 (1): 167–172.
  10. DOI:10.1038/nrn1137
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  11. DOI:10.1152/jn.00639.2006
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  12. DOI:10.1007/s00441-006-0216-2
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  13. Template:OpenDomesday
  14. includeonly>"Prehistoric bloodsucker in Thames", BBC News, 1 July 2009. Retrieved on 27 September 2012.
  15. includeonly>"Giant blood sucker found in River Wear", 25 June 2009.
  16. Evans, Thomas M. (2012). Assessing Food and Nutritional Resources of Native and Invasive Lamprey Larvae Using Natural Abundance Isotopes. Thesis. Ohio State University.
  17. Silva, S., Servia, M. J., Vieira-Lanero, R. & Cobo, F. (2013). Downstream migration and hematophagous feeding of newly metamorphosed sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus Linnaeus, 1758). Hydrobiologia 700: 277–286. Doi: 10.1007/s10750-012-1237-3
  18. Beamish, F. W. H. (1980). Biology of the North American anadromous sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 37:1924−1943. doi: 10.1139/f80-233.
  19. Nichols, O. C. & U. T. Tscherter, 2011. Feeding of sea lampreys Petromyzon marinus on minke whales Balaenoptera acutorostrata in the St Lawrence Estuary. Journal of Fish Biology 78: 338–343.
  20. Silva, S., Servia, M. J., Vieira-Lanero, R., Nachón, D. J. & Cobo, F. (2013). Haematophagous feeding of newly metamorphosed European sea lampreys Petromyzon marinus on strictly freshwater species. Journal of Fish Biology. doi:10.1111/jfb.12100.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Nelson, J. S. (2006). Fishes of the World, 4th, 601 pp., New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
  22. (2000) Shaking the tree: readings from Nature in the history of life, 251–266, University of Chicago Press; Nature/Macmillan Magazines.
  23. DOI:10.2108/zsj.25.1045
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  24. Template:FishBase order
  25. DOI:10.1038/nature04730
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  26. Discovery of the Oldest Fossil Lamprey in the World. University of the Witwatersrand. URL accessed on 8 June 2008.[dead link]
  27. Scientists find lamprey a 'living fossil'. University of Chicago Medicine.
  28. DOI:10.1038/nature05150
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  29. Green, Judith A. (March 2006). Henry I King of England and Duke of Normandy, Queen's University Belfast.
  30. includeonly>"Gloucester lamprey pie is fit for the Queen", BBC News, 20 April 2012.
  31. Template:FishBase species (citing (30 April 1992) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fishes, London: Chancellor Press.).
  32. Deshpande, S. S. (29 Aug 2002). Handbook of Food Toxicology, CRC Press.
  33. DOI:10.1038/nchembio739
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  34. includeonly>Black, Richard. "Sex smell lures 'vampire' to doom", BBC News, 20 January 2009.

Further reading

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