Meet the Sea Lamprey: Vampire of the Lake

Lamprey mouth - Photo by the US Environmental Protection Agency
Lamprey mouth. Photo by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Without sounding too cliche, sea lampreys are a species of jawless fish that are essentially vampires. But how does a jawless fish feed like a vampire? Well, they have a rather scary-looking mouth that acts like a suction cup and allows them to latch themselves onto other fish. Once secured, they use their long, rasping tongues and keratinized teeth to tear through their victim’s tissue and drink its blood. Imagine seeing this lunging for your face. *Shudder*
Image via Reddit

But that’s not the worst part. Sea lampreys also have secretions in their mouths that prevent their victims’ blood from clotting, so even when they’re done feeding, their victims generally die from blood loss or infection.

Sea lampreys attacking trout - Photo by USGS
Sea lampreys parasitizing a trout. Photo by USGS.

Now, of course, this is all part of the natural order, and while we might think the sea lamprey’s feeding habits are scary/gross/weird, that’s just how they eat. HOWEVER, in the Great Lakes region of North America, sea lampreys are NOT part of the natural order. On the contrary, they are alien invaders.

Lamprey anatomy - Artwork by LadyofHats
Lamprey anatomy. Artwork by LadyofHats.

Prior to the late 1800s, sea lampreys were only present in the North Atlantic and Lake Ontario, and Niagara Falls acted as a natural barrier to keep the lampreys out of the other Great Lakes. This all changed in the early 1900s when improvements to the Welland Canal allowed sea lampreys to bypass Niagara Falls and enter the other four lakes, decimating native fish species.

Even today, government authorities in both the United States and Canada are struggling to stop the destructive hordes of sea lampreys. They are even consulting genetic scientists for more information about sea lamprey immune systems. Learn more about their efforts in the video below.

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