Wednesday, February 28, 2024

American EEL

When one hears the term slippery as an eel, the first thing that typically comes to mind is a less than trustful individual bent on bamboozling you then slipping away silently into the night never to be heard from again. This phrase having been repeated for generations has become part of English vernacular and is probably not going anywhere soon. For me slippery as an eel takes on a different meaning, in terms of the eel itself.

Several months ago, during a trip to the zoo with my granddaughter she showed an intense fascination for the eels on display. After many repeated trips since that initial visit, she expressed the same desire to “see the eels.” I found this interest in eels at such a young age (she’s 3) curious, after all aren’t most children more inclined towards the elephants, lions, or giraffes? This unusual interest of hers sent me on my own journey to learn about them. After reading books, and pouring over internet sites, it became apparent to me that her interest was (is) valid and I am grateful to her for having  piqued my own interest. Now I too want to “see the eels.”

Did you know that Missouri is home to an eel? I did not. The American Eel is native to North America and may be found throughout much of our country as well as Canada. This slippery torpedo shaped creature lives in many rivers and streams throughout our state. They are clear to green in color depending upon the stage of life they are in. They have a large dorsal fin that extends the entire length of the body. They appear to be smooth but are actually covered in tiny scales, too small for us to see, that are arranged in an irregular pattern and embedded below the skin. A slimy mucus secretes from their skin, which is thought to aid them in moving through the water.

This slippery slime, combined with their serpentine movements makes holding on to one exceeding difficult, thus the term slippery as an eel came into being. They may reach a yard or more in length, with females being larger than males. It is believed that all eels found within our state will be females, as the males stay close to the estuaries near the Atlantic coastline. A state record eel was caught on the Current River in 2021 that weighed a whopping six and a half pounds beating the previous record set in 1994 of a little over four pounds. No one knows for certain how many eels are actually in Missouri, but they are considered threatened in our state. They are nocturnal by nature, and feed on a wide variety of aquatic insects, crayfish, worms  and mussels. During the day they hide under logs, boulders, and other underwater cover. Even though they are capable of tolerating a wide range of temperature fluctuations, during the winter they burrow into the mud and enter into a torpor, or inactive state. 

Eels have an unusual lifecycle that is greatly dependent on their ability to travel river systems, and with the damming of the rivers they are blocked from making that journey. The American eel, along with its cousin the European eel begin their life in the Sargasso Sea, sort of a sea within a sea located near Bermuda. After mating, females will lay as many as four million eggs before dying. These eggs hatch in about one week. 


The newly hatched eels are called leptocephali. They will be somewhat leaf-shaped, transparent and will remain in this state for up to a year. At that time, they will have reached the continental shelf and will metamorphosis into the next stage and are referred to as glass eels. These tiny transparent juveniles continue to drift among the ocean currents heading towards North America. As they reach the coastal estuaries they will metamorphosis into elvers with more pigment in their skin and remain in this stage for an additional year.

As they begin their journey up freshwater rivers and their tributaries they are now ready to enter into the next stage of development called the yellow eel. They are considered adults at this stage but are still sexually immature. They will remain yellow eels for more than ten years before significant changes happen with their physiology to prepare them for their final stage of development. At this time, they are referred to as silver eels. 

Photo: K. Leeker

They will change color to green or brown with a white or yellowish belly that appears silver. Their digestive system dissolves, meaning they will no longer be able to feed,  their eyes grow in diameter and adapt the pigments necessary to survive on their upcoming oceanic journey, their pectoral fin enlarges, and lipids increase to supply enough energy to live on for the long migration back to the Sargasso Sea where they will spawn, and die, thus completing their lifecycle. For some eels this journey exceeds 3700 miles,  and takes years to complete, as they face the dangers of being eaten by other eels, eagles, gulls, and other fish-eating birds.

Climate change is dramatically interrupting their lifecycle. With a warming planet the direction and strength of the ocean currents change impeding the eels ability to migrate to their freshwater habitats. Stronger currents drastically throw migrating eels off course, casting them adrift in the ocean currents. The temperature of the water also changes which affects the lifecycle of plankton, reducing their numbers which means less food for the tiny leptocephali and glass eels. Other challenges faced by American Eels as well as European Eels is the over harvest of glass eels. Spain and France especially consider glass eels a delicacy and they are caught in unsustainable numbers, greatly reducing the population of these eels. Without strict regulation, if these actions continue the eel may be no more. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation) has declared the American and European Eels as endangered.

Many Indigenous cultures rely on the eel for their traditions and practices. For many the eel is a source of food, and medicine. Dried eel skins were used to make bindings to hold spear points and axe heads onto sticks, as well as fashion hair ties and sew moccasins together and the oils from the eel treated earaches. We know the travelers of the Mayflower, after months at sea, landed on hostile shores. They spent a year aboard their ship in fear for their lives with no access to nutritional food. Many died of scurvy, and tuberculosis. Tisquantum , also known as Squanto, was a member of the Patuxet tribe. He made peace with the Pilgrams and brought them eels to eat, which saved their lives. He taught them how to find and hunt the eels as well as grow corn and other food. His life saving teachings were greatly appreciated by the newcomers and a feast was held one year after Squanto initiated peace. This feast is referred to as Thanksgiving today. To think we could just as easily be eating eels for our Thanksgiving dinner as we do turkey. I guess the lowly eel didn’t make the cut when the tradition of this feast was handed down from generation to generation. 

With the numbers of eels in sharp decline Canada has listed them as a species of special concern and they are no longer harvested commercially. The United States has not yet followed suit.  I for one hope the powers that be in our country change their mind and gives the eel its due recognition as a unique member of our natural fauna. These slippery, snake-like creatures saved the Pilgrams of the Mayflower, they travel our waterways controlling insect and crayfish populations, have a lifecycle that defies logic, and are an important resource for many Indigenous tribes. As such, should be protected so future generations can be inspired by them, as my granddaughter, and now myself are.


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