Bayou-Diversity (28 January 2018) BAYOU DENIZENS One of the most profound mysteries of nature involves salmon and their epic journeys from the ocean back to the freshwater rivers and streams of their birth in order to reproduce. In Louisiana there exists a species of fish that performs a feat no less amazing. In fact this species does the salmon act backwards. I am referring to the American eel.
Eels are widespread in North America and common in the rivers and larger streams of our area. Though their bodies are elongated and snake-like, they are actually scaleless fish with fins and gills. They should not be confused with what many local people call “lamper eels”, which are not eels at all but rather a species of harmless salamander that frequents swampy areas and ditches. The true eels are sometimes called “fish eels” in this region. They occasionally reach 5 feet in length and are mostly nocturnal, feeding on a variety of fish, insects, snails and crawfish.
There is much yet to be learned about the life cycle of this species, but what is known is remarkable. Behaving exactly opposite of salmon, eels live out their adult lives in freshwater and return to the ocean to spawn. In fact, all eels return to a specific area known as the Sargasso Sea just north of the Bahamas. Here their life begins and ends. Eggs hatch into 2 inch larvae and drift in Gulf Stream currents for up to a year, most eventually arriving on the eastern coastline of North America. Some are drawn into the Gulf of Mexico. As they drift they change into a more eel-life form and usually in the autumn when they are still less than 4 inches long they begin to enter freshwater rivers and streams. The young eels are determined at this stage and have been known to climb the wet walls of dams and wiggle up moist grass banks to get around obstacles. Many travel upstream several hundred miles where they may live as adults from 5 to 20 years. At some point the adults begin drastic physical changes that prepare them for migration back to the sea. They stop feeding, eyes and fins enlarge, and their body color pattern transforms. The migration occurs during autumn nights as they retrace their natal routes down rivers and streams through locks and over dams and back into the ocean for a January spawning in the warm Caribbean waters. Here the females lay 10 to 20 million eggs each and life for the species is renewed even as the adults soon die on the spawning grounds. This profound mystery occurs right here in our midst and always below us as we cross the bayou bridges with our minds on the mundane issues of our own lives. (adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, LSU Press)