Great Lakes Lamprey Species

By on August 9, 2016

Great Lakes, October 2011. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory / Public Domain)

Amongst all the Great Lakes invasive species out there, perhaps the sea lamprey is the scariest. And why not? Its role in the food chain includes chomping into the sides of fish and living on them as a parasite. The effects of its feeding, like the invasive lamprey itself, aren’t pretty to look at either.

Because of that notoriety, it’s easy to overlook some of the other lamprey species that inhabit waters in the Great Lakes. Did you know that there are five Great Lakes lamprey species out there, including the invasive one?

Let’s take a look at each lamprey species inhabiting the Great Lakes. We’ve organized them alphabetically, with some fun facts and scientific info on each.


American Brook Lamprey

American Brook Lamprey. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Fungus Guy via Creative Commons 3.0)

  • Scientific Name: Lethenteron appendix
  • Lifespan: 5 years
  • Maximum Size: About 8 inches
  • What They Eat: Organic matter and microscopic organisms
  • Coloring: Adults are dark tan above and lighter below prior to spawning. During spawning, adults become blue-black in color.
  • Fun Fact: American brook lampreys are the second most common lamprey species in Ohio. They are rather abundant in the Killbuck Creek and Mad River drainages. They can also be found elsewhere in both the Lake Erie and Ohio River basins.

(Source: Ohio Department of Natural Resources)

Chestnut Lamprey 

Chestnut Lamprey. (Credit: Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

  • Scientific Name: Ichthyomyzon castaneus
  • Lifespan: 3 to 8 years
  • Maximum Size: 12 inches
  • What They Eat: As parasite feeders, they prey on fish.
  • Coloring: Chestnut colored, eel-like fish
  • Fun Fact: Chestnut lamprey juvenile forms are eyeless and have a horseshoe-shaped hood as a mouth.

(Sources: U.S. Geological Survey, Missouri Department of Conservation)

Northern Brook Lamprey

Northern Brook Lamprey. (Credit: Iowa Department of Natural Resources)

  • Scientific Name: Ichthyomyzon fossor
  • Lifespan: 3 to 6 years
  • Maximum Size: 7 inches
  • What They Eat: drifting, suspended organic detritus, algae, and bacteria or nutrients drawn from the surrounding sediment
  • Coloring: Adults are a light tan or silvery tan in coloration prior to spawning. During spawning, adults become blue-black in color.
  • Fun Fact: Northern Brook Lamprey are endangered in Ohio.

(Sources: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Sea Lamprey 

Sea Lamprey on a trout. (Credit: Public Domain)

  • Scientific Name: Petromyzon marinus
  • Lifespan: 4 to 6 years on average; up to 20
  • Maximum Size: Around 18 inches
  • What They Eat: As a parasite, they feed on other fish.
  • Coloring: Small specimens are white below and uniformly colored above, usually described as blackish blue, or as lead colored, and more or less silvery. Large specimens are olive brown above, or of varying shades of yellow-brown, green, red, or blue. Below, they’re a pale, white gray.
  • Fun Fact: Sea Lampreys have survived unchanged for 340 million years, surviving at least four major extinction events.

(Sources: U.S. Geological Survey, Minnesota Sea Grant, Gulf of Maine Research Institute) 

Silver Lamprey 

Silver Lamprey. (Credit: Public Domain)

  • Scientific Name: Ichthyomyzon unicuspis
  • Lifespan: Around 9 years
  • Maximum Size: 12 to 15 inches
  • What They Eat: They filter feed on algae, plankton, and other organic matter as larvae. As adults, they are parasitic on fish.
  • Coloring: Adults are light tan or silvery tan color. During spawning, adults become blue-black in color.
  • Fun Fact: Silver Lamprey can still be found in both Lake Erie and the Ohio River and spawning runs are made up tributaries, however they are much less numerous than in the past.

(Sources: Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Michigan State University Extension, U.S. Geological Survey)

Featured Image: Great Lakes, October 2011. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory / Public Domain)

Know a thing or two about Great Lakes lamprey species? What other cool facts did we miss here? Please consider leaving a comment to share your thoughts!

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