About lampreys

Introduction to lampreys

The Lampreys (family Petromyzonidae, stone suckers) belong to a small but important group known as Agnatha, the most primitive of all living vertebrates. Together with the marine hagfish, Lampreys are the only jawless fish. They have no bones, all the skeletal structures being made up of strong, flexible, cartilage. Lampreys have no scales or paired fins. Their mouth is a sucking disc and their body is eel shaped. They have distinct eyes, seven gill slits on each side of their body, a single nostril between the eyes and fins running along their back and surrounding their tail.

Adult River lamprey Lampetra fluviatilis

Adult River lamprey Lampetra fluviatilis

Lamprey species differ in many ways from teleost fish and their specific requirements are not catered for in generic mitigation and guidance documents for salmonid species. Most of the fisheries programmes undertaken in Ireland have focused exclusively on salmonids and other species of recreational or commercial importance. Impacts affecting the three native lamprey species differ from those affecting salmonid and other fish species, due to differing life cycles and habitat requirements.

Lampreys are endangered in Europe, and European states are legally required to take measures to ensure their protection. Three species of lamprey occur in Irish waters; Sea lamprey Petromyzon marinus (Linnaeus 1758, species code 1095), River lamprey Lampetra fluviatilis (Linnaeus 1758, species code 1096) and Brook lamprey Lampetra planeri (Bloch 1784, species code 1099).

Brook lamprey ammocoetes from the River Barrow

Brook lamprey ammocoetes from the River Barrow

The destruction of juvenile lamprey habitat is thought to be a major factor in the decline of lamprey populations. Much of this loss can be attributed to drainage of rivers. Projects that alter passage, change flow hydraulics, alter stream substrates, and decrease habitat complexity can negatively affect lampreys. Nonetheless there are conservation opportunities for lampreys. Primary opportunities to protect and restore Lamprey populations include providing Lamprey passage, protecting juvenile habitat and restoration of stream channel complexity.

While there is still much to be learned about lamprey distribution and abundance, the need for conservation of lampreys is evident. Until recently, lampreys were widely distributed in aquatic systems throughout much of Europe but considerable decline in lamprey populations has however been observed in recent decades. Ireland however still retains extensive lamprey populations enabling further efforts of conservation and research to progress. Ireland could play an important role in the conservation of these species in Europe.

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