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American Eel
American Eel, Anguilla rostrata

The American eel is the only eel species found in frewshwater rivers in North America. Adults are catadromous and migrate downstream to the Atlantic Ocean and spawn in the Sargasso Sea (near Bermuda). The young are ribbon-like (leptocephalus) larvae which float and swim for 1-3 years in the ocean before returning to freshwater. As they near freshwater they transform into "glass-eels" (a transparent form of the adult) which then turns into an "elver" (dark, minature version of the adult), and finally into an adult.

Adults migrate upstream and inland as far as Minnesota, and may remain in freshwater for as long as 15 years before returning to the ocean to spawn. Adult eels (up to 4 feet in length) live in rivers where they hide in the mud by day and forage at night. Their ability to breathe air allows them to mover overland around dams and other obstructions. A growing aquaculture industry is harvesting elvers to feed and rear in tanks to adult size, and selling adult eels as food fish, fresh or smoked. The flesh is firm and well flavored, and it is considered a delicacy in Europe and Asia. Virginia is a major exporter of American eels.

Physical Description: 
  • Elongate, round anteriorly (snake like)
  • Dorsal and anal fins long and connected to the tail fin and
  • Lacks a pelvic fin
  • Head is short, eye medium-sized
  • Large with toothed jaws, terminal mouth, tubular nostrils
  • Thick, tough skin with cycloid scales
  • Larvae are transparent, ribbon-like, and planktonic, called leptocephalus
  • Next stage is the glass eel which is transparent, cylindrical, and free-swimming
  • Next is the elver stage where they darken in color
  • Juveniles become fully pigmented
  • Mature eels have enlarged eyes
  • Similar species:
  • Closely related to the European eel Anguilla anguilla.
  • Mean body size:
  • Adults are 220-1000 mm total length
  • Habitat:
  • Inhabits streams, ponds, lakes, reservoirs, swamps, salt marshes, estuaries, and ocean
  • Mostly nocturnal and hide in cover during the day, sometimes burrowing into mud or silt
  • Survive drought and low-oxygen conditions by gas exchange occurring across skin and gills
  • Distribution in VA:
  • Found in the Atlantic slope drainage and is native to the New River drainage
  • Food Habits:
  • Eat live and recently dead animal matter
  • Also worms, crustaceans, insects, snails, clams, crayfish, and fish
  • Feed at night
  • Reproductive Habits:
  • Catadromous - migrate to the ocean to spawn
  • American and European eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea
  • Peak of spawning is in February
  • Fecundity is 400,000-2,500,000 eggs per female
  • After spawning, adults are not known to return to freshwater
  • Male eels mature early and are restricted to estuaries
  • Females grow larger, live longer, and mature later then males
  • Eggs are pelagic and hatch into leptocephalus larvae that drift on the currents for one year, then metamorphose into transparent glass eels, which swim coastward and upriver
  • Population Status, Economic, or Ecological Importance:
  • Dams limit upstream migration on the Roanoke, James, Dan, and New Rivers
  • Popular as fish bait in coastal areas
  • Firm, well flavored meat which is a delicacy in Europe and Asia
References: Jenkins, R.E and N.M. Burkhead. 1993. Freshwater Fishes of Virginia. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland.
If you are seeking more information for the above species click on the VAFWIS logo (The Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service):


Continue Browsing Families.....
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  2. Polyodontidae, Paddlefish
  3. Acipenseridae, Sturgeons
  4. Lepisosteidae, Gars
  5. Amiidae, Bowfins
  6. Anguillidae, Freshwater Eels
  7. Amblyopsidae, Cavefishes
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