Lamprey: Master of Suction, Jaws Nowhere in Sight!

Lamprey Master of Suction with No Jaws to Speak Of

Lamprey, an ancient aquatic marvel, having jawless circular mouth adorned with countless rows of razor-sharp teeth, serpentine body has an allure that intrigues. The scientific name of lamprey is Petromyzon marinus – the word “Petromyzon” signifies “stone sucking” with “petro” means “stone” and “myzon” implies “sucking”; the world “marinus” signifies “of the sea”. Another dramatic name the species is renowned for is vampire fish thanks to its feeding on other creatures’ blood.

KingdomPhylumClassOrderFamilyGenusScientific Name
AnimaliaChordataPetromyzontidaPetromyzontiformesPetromyzontidaePetromyzonPetromyzon marinus
Taxonomic Classification of Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus)

Origin and Evolution

In the matter with the lamprey’s origin, fossils show evidence pertaining to the existence of these creatures about 360 million years back in time; no considerable changings occurred during this stretched timespan. These species belong to the superclass Agnatha, which encompasses jawless fish of every kind. Being marine organisms, the lampreys had cartilaginous skeletons.

When it comes to the lamprey’s evolution, these creatures, with numerous species adapting to diverse ecological roles and habitats, have followed an extended and complex path. As they evolved, they retained their jawless feature that is a feather is its cap. The unique oral disc – a circular, sucker-like mouth lined with sharp, horn-like teeth – is one of the most typical adaptations.


In connection with the lamprey’s distribution, it’s widespread across multiple continents and regions, including both marine and freshwater environments, and showcases its adaptability and evolutionary success.

North America

Lampreys are conspicuously located in both the Atlantic and Pacific regions. The sea lamprey – Petromyzon marinus – native to the Atlantic, has been led to the Great Lakes.


Europe houses multiple species, encompassing European Brook lamprey (Lampetra planeri) and European River lamprey (Lampetra fluviatilis) in freshwater environments and the European River lamprey (Lampetra fluviatilis) along the Mediterranean Sea and coastal regions.


These animals are distributed in Asia as well. For instance, the Japanese lamprey (Lethenteron japonicum) is found in Japan and in some neighboring regions.


In contrast with the rest of the regions, these fish have a limited distribution in Africa. The African lamprey (Lampetra sp.) is located in freshwater systems on the continent.


The Southern Hemisphere lamprey (Mordacia mordax), a unique species, is native to Australia; it’s found in the freshwater habitat of southern Australia and Tasmania.

South America

As compared to other regions, the region has a few native species, like Geotria australis located in the freshwater systems of Argentina and Chile.


In the matter with lamprey’s population, depending on factors such as habitat availability, human activities and water quality, its population size can range from abundant to threatened. The species live in the Northern Hemisphere and can be located in the western and northern parts of the Atlantic Ocean, encompassing along the shores of North America and Europe.

In the same vein, they’re present in the western Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Connecticut River basin, and along the shores of the Great Lakes. The lifespan can be observed divided in two parts – a part in freshwater and part in saltwater. Their kidneys alter, during their ultimate metamorphosis from filter-feeders to parasitic lampreys, to put up with saltwater, letting them to step into lakes and oceans to pursue hosts for survival until spawning.  

Historical Spread

In 1830s, the first sighting of these creatures happened; it’s unpredictable if they were already present there or introduced through Eire Canal which finished in 1825. In 1919, development of the Welland Canal let the species’ population to stretch from Lake Ontario into Lake Erie and from there, it proceeded to Lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron.

Population Status

The population of these species is not even close to endangered; as a matter of fact, massive efforts to lessen its population have been made in the Great Lakes basin where it impacted negatively on populations of lake trout and other fish after its introduction in the 1930s and 1940s. During its 12 to 18-month adulthood before spawning, a vampire fish can kill fish weighing up to 40 pounds, which result in a drastic decline in fish stocks.

Ecological Impact

What impacted on the Great Lakes ecosystem is the introduction of lampreys. The harvest of lake trout was upwards of 15 million pounds per year before their introduction. By the early 1960s, thanks to the lamprey’s predatory doings, this figure dropped to 300,000 pounds per annum only.


Lamprey Reproduction and Life Cycles

With respect to lamprey’s habitat, it’s evolved to flourish in wide ranging aquatic environments around the world. Let’s unfold its habitat preferences, spotlighting its adaptability and unparalleled existence in various water bodies.

Freshwater Habitats

Being primarily freshwater species, lampreys make oceans, rivers and lakes their preferred habitats. They can be located in temperate regions of North America, Europe and Asia, albeit some species can be present in tropical and subtropical regions.

Anadromous Lampreys

A considerable portion of these species are anadromous, that is, they spend part of their life cycle in the ocean and part in freshwater. During their adult stage, anadromous lampreys migrate to the sea, where they feed and engage in maturation before getting back to their natal freshwater habitats to spawn.

Parasitic Lampreys

During their adult age, the parasitic nature is a unique aspect of lampreys. Using their sucker-like mouthparts, these creatures attach themselves to the bodies of larger fish and feed on their host’s blood and bodily fluids. The very behavior is common in certain species and can pose a threat to the host fish populations, particularly in areas where lampreys have been introduced outside their native range.

Lampreys in Estuaries

These species can be located in estuaries – the transition zones between saltwater and freshwater environments. Estuaries are equipped with rich feeding grounds that provides them with a variety of food sources, making them vital habitats for particular lamprey’s populations.

Burrowing Behavior

A burrowing behavior they exhibit in sandy or fine-grained substrates where they cause a depression in the sediment and reside moderately buried. The burrowing behavior provides them protection against predators and strong currents. In some regions, their habitats overlap with Bull Sharks, creating an interesting ecological dynamic between these distinct aquatic creatures.


lamprey Appearance

Owing to the fact that these creatures have long, snake-like bodies showcasing smooth, scaleless skin that gives them a look remarkably identical to eels, numerous people are of the view that eels and lampreys are close relatives, but as a matter of fact they’re not.

Body Structure

The slender and cylindrical shape of lampreys’ eel-like bodies let them to maneuver through water with ease. They’ve skeleton made of cartilage giving them more flexibility compered to bony fish. Differing from most fish species, the species lack paired fins but have single dorsal fin running along their back.

Jawless Mouth

The jawless mouth of lampreys is among the most distinctive features setting them apart from the rest of fish. In lieu of a true jaw, they have a circular, sucker-like mouth equipped with rows of sharp, keratinized teeth.


TongueA specialized tongue-like structure called the oral disc
Mouth A circular, sucker-like structure
Teeth Rows of sharp, keratinized teeth in their oral disc
Nose Nasal openings that they use for olfaction
Skeleton Primarily cartilaginous

Reproduction and Life Cycles

Lampreys, jawless fish belonging to the superclass Agnatha, showcase an unparalleled life cycle and reproductive strategies. Let’s dive into the fundamental perspectives of their survival and propagation.

Reproductive Behavior

There’re two primary reproductive strategies these creature display. The major part of these species showcase anadromous behavior, moving from the sea to freshwater for spawning. They make use of their mouths to cling onto rocks and wear down obstacles they face during migration. While some other, known as landlocked lampreys, remain in freshwater throughout their lifespan and don’t undertake long migrations.

Life Cycle

Transitioning through multiple levels, these species undergo a metamorphosis during their life cycle. They start as larvae named ammocoetes, filter-feeding organisms residing in freshwater environments. As ammocoetes, they experience metamorphosis, becoming sexually mature adults. Their return to freshwater from ocean or sea for reproduction is subject to the kind of species.


During reproduction, these species engage in circling, nudging and biting to have mating pairs. In contrast to the majority of fish species, lampreys don’t have separate configurations for gametes; they possess gonads distributed along the body wall. Into the constructed nests females lay eggs, whereas males concurrently release milt – sperm – to fertilize the eggs.

Early Life of Offspring

After the eggs have fertilized, the eggs modify into larval forms referred to as ammocoetes, which filter-feed in freshwater until metamorphosis takes place. Following this, the ammocoetes turn into sexually mature adults, continuing the life cycle of lampreys.

Mating Habits

Mating BehaviorAnadromous
Reproduction SeasonDuring spring or early summer
Independent AgeLamprey larvae (ammocoetes) are independent
Baby NameAmmocoetes or juveniles


Lampreys having an eel-like appearance, are known for their parasitic feeding habits and exclusive migratory behavior. They’re capable of attaching themselves to hosts to feed on body fluids and blood; they can be non-parasitic as well, consuming detritus and algae. Having a long evolutionary history dating back over 360 million years, these creatures play a crucial role in freshwater ecosystems.

Prey and Diet

These species have exceptional feeding habits distinguishing them from other fish species. Their prey and diet in contingent to whether they’re parasitic or non-parasitic.

Parasitic Lampreys

The parasitic feeding behavior of these species is among the most stimulating aspects. Their specialized circular mouths equipped with sharp teeth, permitting them to latch onto their host species. They make use of their dominant oral disks to develop a vacuum-like suction, firmly fastening themselves to their prey. Lamprey’s prey includes various fish species, such as trout, sturgeon, salmon, lake fish and some marine mammals.

Non-parasitic Lampreys

Non-parasitic lampreys have distinct dietary strategy, primarily feeding on microscopic organisms, including algae, plankton and small aquatic invertebrates. The sophisticated gill structure of these species let them to filter food particles competently from the water. In contrast with parasitic lampreys, these fish are less dependent on particular host species and more on the accessibility of appropriate food particles in their environment.

Threats and Conservation

When it comes to the threats and lamprey’s conservation, habitat loss and degradation is on the top of the list. Human development, such as urbanization and dam and weirs construction has pose a threat to their spawning and rearing grounds, extinguishing their life cycle and lessening their population numbers. These factors also cease their migration between freshwater and marine environments.

Relationship with Humans

Being slow swimmers, the lampreys don’t cause any disruption in human doings; they’ve non-aggressive behavior towards humans. In some cultures, including Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Chinad, this fish is considered a delicacy. Certain lampreys with their matchless taste cherished by some culinary enthusiasts have been traditionally harvested for consumption. Coupled with their usage as food, they’re believed to possess medical properties; they, now and then, have been used as bait for fishing as well.

The Rundown and Fun Facts

Common NameLamprey
Other Name(s)Vampire fish
Number of Species 38
Population SizeSea lamprey 15,269 & River lamprey 116,109
Lifespan Up to 7 years
Weight 5.1 pounds (2.31 kg)
Length 12 to 40 inches (30 to 100 centimeters)
Predator Brown trout, walleye
Prey / FoodLake Fish
Most Distinctive FeatureUnique circular, sucker-like mouth, a delicacy in France, Spain, and Portugal


Sea lampreys are a common sight along the Atlantic Ocean’s coasts in both North America and Europe. These species have populations in both the Black Sea and western Mediterranean. Notably, they have entered the Great Lakes, which has sparked ongoing efforts to regulate and control their population in this area.

Both freshwater and saltwater environments are ideal for the parasitic fish known as the sea lampreys. Contrary to popular belief, these are unrelated to eels while interestingly having a comparable size to them.

Lampreys eat mostly on plankton and other debris when in their larval stage via filter-feeding processes. But when they grow older and become adults, they start eating hematophagously. In order to survive, they must attach themselves to hosts and feed on their blood.

Lampreys don’t bite and aren’t particularly hostile towards people. They do not pose a substantial hazard to humans because they are slow swimmers.

Larger fish frequently prey on lampreys, therefore human intervention in places like the Great Lakes has long involved attempts to control their population.

Lampreys have a skin covering.

Mudassar Ahmad

He is a seasoned blogger since 2012 and an M.Phil graduate in English Linguistics. He captivates readers with his eloquent prose and insightful perspectives. His passion for language and dedication to crafting compelling content make him a trusted voice in the online sphere. Explore the world through Ahmad's literary lens.

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