ECHO Science Spotlight: Discover the American Eel!

American Eels have one of the most complex and interesting life cycles of any fish in Vermont. They hatch in the Sargasso Sea, an area of the North Atlantic Ocean east of the Florida, Georgia coast. Young eels migrate to shorelines, on either side of the Atlantic, some making their way north to the St. Lawrence River, then down the Richelieu River, eventually making their home in Lake Champlain. Eels are one of very few species that can adapt to either a fresh or salt water environment. When they mature, which can take up to 30 years, they migrate back out to the Sargasso sea where they breed and presumably die. Eels are very elusive and scientists have yet to observe their breeding behaviors once they arrive in the Sargasso sea.

Eels and their sustained migrations, provide a key ‘biomass’ input into Lake Champlain, an important aspect of a healthy food chain in an ecosystem. However, in the last few years, though biologists have found that the eels in Lake Champlain are growing and doing fairly well, there are seemingly low numbers of eels entering Lake Champlain from the Sargasso Sea. Migration routes were historically blocked by river dams but more recently biologists have installed eel ‘ladders’ to allow eels to pass. Whether or not these eel ladders are the problem remains to be determined.

The largest female American Eel found in Vermont was almost four feet long, while the males rarely exceed two feet. Eels have one continuous fin running down their body and their serpentine body shape allows them to swim backwards, which most fish cannot do. Amazingly, eels can travel over land for short distances because unlike other fish, they can absorb oxygen through their skin. These nocturnal fish come out at night to feed on smaller fish, crayfish, aquatic insects, and other small aquatic animals. During the day they spend most of their time burrowed into sediment or hiding under rocks, logs and other debris on the bottom of the lake or ponds along their migration routes.

Want more? At ECHO, our large beautiful female eel is one of our more popular animal ambassadors especially when she leaves her hide to come out to eat during one of our daily scheduled animal care demos. To see her up close, come on down to ECHO.

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Animal Care Staff coordinate environmental programs at ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. The center, which works to engage families in the wonder of nature, and care of Lake Champlain., partnered with the Burlington Free Press to publish this feature.

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