Lamprey Species of New York (Upstate)

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About Lampreys

Lamprey parts

Often confused with eels, lampreys are not considered true fish, while eels are. Although both eels and lampreys have scaleless bodies, the lamprey has several primitive characteristics that make it easy to separate them from the eel family. Most notably, lampreys lack jaws, but instead have a tooth-lined circular “sucker” mouth. They also have no paired fins; a single nostril (on the top of their head); seven gill slits on each side and a skeleton of cartilage, not bone.

Lampreys start out as small burrowing larvae that filter feed on plankton with specialized filtering mouth parts. They then metamorphosize into adults (with parasitic sucker mouth) and usually migrate out to sea. Parasitic lampreys will attach to a host fish and feed off of their blood. Most landlocked species stop feeding after metamorphosis and die shortly after spawning.

Lampreys are the most primitive freshwater fish in New York State.

What to look for: snake-like bodies that lack scales and paired fins. Large eyes. Large, circular mouth lined with teeth and always open.

The details presented below generally represent adult specimens, not juveniles.

Click here for New York State sportfishing regulations

Fishing Books and Guides

New York State Lamprey Identification Guide

Mountain Brook Lamprey Mountain Brook Lamprey

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Special Concern in NY State

Mountain Brook Lamprey (Ichthyomyzon greeleyi)

Identifying characteristics: Small snake-like body with sucker-like mouth and concentric rings of teeth. The mouth is no wider than the head. The skin is gray-brown or yellowish-brown and scaleless, often with dark specks. The undersides tend to be lighter in color. The dorsal fin has a slight notch and is joined to the caudal fin. A row of 7 gill holes is visible just behind the head.

Size: Averaging 5-7 inches in length with a maximum of 8 inches.

New York State record: none kept.

Habitat: Clean freshwater creeks, tolerating a wide range of habitats. Adults are found in fast riffles, while larvae stick to slow-moving, muddy pools.

General range: In NY they are most likely found in Allegheny River tributaries bordering Pennsylvania in Chautauqua  County. Outside of the state they are found in many river systems to the south.

Food: These are non-parasitic lamprey. The juveniles dig burrows in muddy areas and are filter feeders (plankton). Adults most likely do not feed.

Recommended baiting: Dip netting is often used to catch lampreys during spawning, when they gather in great numbers.

Predators: Larger predatory fish.

Stocked? No.

Reproduction: Spawning occurs in late May when the water temperature climbs to nearly 19°C. Males begin excavating nests and wait for a female to come and attach herself to a nearby rock. Spawning pairs induce more pairs to join, with as many as nine pairs sharing a nest. Eggs are deposited in the depression. Adults die shortly after spawning. Larvae live for years, filter feeding in muddy pools before they turn into adults.

Nesting: Nests are excavated depressions in stony creek beds, just downstream from a flat stone (8-10 inches in diameter), and upstream from a riffle.

Other Info.: This landlocked form of lamprey lives the majority of its life in larval form. Its marine ancestors most likely traveled up freshwater streams to spawn. When trapped in freshwater, the lamprey’s life-cycle also became trapped and distorted. Adult Mountain Brook Lampreys are non-parasitic, despite their well-adapted mouthparts, and most likely do not feed at all as adults. This is also a result of being locked out of their marine life-cycle.

Sea LampreySea Lampreymouth
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Invasive in many bodies of water.

Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus)

AKA: Lamprey eel (incorrectly)

Identifying characteristics: Small snake-like body with sucker-like mouth and concentric rings of teeth and file-like tongue. Juveniles tend to be a mottled blue-gray while adults are mottled brown/black. The skin is smooth with no scales. The dorsal fin is divided into two distinct lobes. A row of 7 gill holes is visible just behind the head.

Size: Juveniles range from 6 to 24 inches, while adults range from 14 to 32 inches in length.

New York State record: none kept.

Habitat: Like many Salmon, the sea lamprey will live most of its mature life in open ocean or large lakes and return to inland stream to spawn. Larvae live in their natal streams for years. Lampreys can tolerate a wide range of conditions. Larvae need productive streams for filter-feeding. Mature lampreys will need suitable prey.

General range: The landlocked form can be found in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, Lake Chaplain, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. Ocean dwelling lampreys can be found spawning up the Hudson and its tributaries.

Food: Larvae dig burrows and filter feed. Juveniles are parasitic and will attach themselves to a large lake or ocean fish with their sucker mouth and sharp teeth. They then tear away the fish’s skin and scales and begin feeding on its blood and body fluids. Lampreys secrete an anti-coagulant to prevent the host-fish’s blood from clotting. Blood loss and infection often kill the host fish, and the lamprey detaches and moves on.

Recommended baiting: Dip netting is often used to catch eels during spawning, when they gather in great numbers.

Predators: Larger predatory fish. Humans.

Stocked? No. Invasive.

Reproduction: Spawning occurs in late May/early June. Males begin excavating nests and wait for a female to come and attach herself to a nearby rock. Spawning pairs induce more pairs to join, with as many as nine pairs sharing a nest. Eggs are deposited in the depression. Adults die shortly after spawning. Larvae drift downstream to calmer waters and live for years, filter feeding in muddy pools before they turn into adults.

Nesting: Nests are excavated depressions in stony creek beds, upstream from a riffle. Since the spawning habits of the Silver Lamprey are similar, both species often share the same nests.

Other Info.: Although considered a tasty meal in many regions outside of the United States, Sea Lampreys are regarded as pests here. Although native to ocean-connected river systems, they have been accidentally introduced to our larger freshwater lakes such as Lake Ontario, Erie and the larger Finger Lakes. There they have greatly reduced the numbers of top predator fish, which in turn opened up the opportunity for fast-breeding feeder fish, such as the alewife, to overpopulate and shift the food chain.

Silver LampreySilver LampreyFind more images of this species on Bing

Silver Lamprey (Ichthyomyzon unicuspis)

Identifying characteristics: Small snake-like body with sucker-like mouth and concentric rings of single-pointed teeth. When fully open, the mouth is wider than the head. Adults are mottled brown/blue/grey (almost silvery). The skin is smooth with no scales. The dorsal fin is notched but not divided. A row of 7 gill holes is visible just behind the head.

Size: up to a foot in length.

New York State record: none kept.

Habitat: The silver lamprey will live most of its mature life in lakes and large rivers and return to inland stream to spawn. Larvae live in their natal streams for years. Lampreys can tolerate a wide range of conditions. Larvae need productive and clear streams for filter-feeding. Mature lampreys will need suitable prey.

General range: In NY they can be found in the Lakes Ontario, Erie, Champlain and their tributaries.

Food: Larvae dig burrows and filter feed. Adults are parasitic and will attach themselves to a larger fish (trout, whitefish, bass, etc.) with their sucker mouth and sharp teeth. They then tear away the fish’s skin and scales and begin feeding on its blood and body fluids. Lampreys secrete an anti-coagulant to prevent the host-fish’s blood from clotting. Blood loss and infection often kill the host fish, and the lamprey detaches and moves on.

Recommended baiting: Dip netting is often used to catch lampreys during spawning, when they gather in great numbers.

Predators: Larger predatory fish. Humans.

Stocked? No. Native.

Reproduction: Spawning occurs in May and June when the water temperature reaches 50°F. Males begin excavating nests and wait for a female to come and attach herself to a nearby rock. Spawning pairs induce more pairs to join, with as many as nine pairs sharing a nest. Eggs are deposited in the depression. Adults die shortly after spawning. Larvae drift downstream to calmer waters and live for years filter feeding in muddy pools before they turn into adults.

Nesting: Nests are excavated depressions in stony creek beds, upstream from a riffle. Since the spawning habits of the Sea Lamprey are similar, both species often share the same nests.

Other Info.: Although the Sea Lamprey has devastated predatory fish populations in the Great Lakes, the native Silver Lamprey, can be considered more in harmony with other native fish and their ecosystems. It plays an important role in population control.

Note

Some fish images originally prepared by Ellen Edmonson and Hugh Chrisp as part of the 1927-1940 New York Biological Survey. Permission for use granted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Others were acquired from the public domain. Some are used as part of a Creative Commons license.

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