River lamprey

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The river lamprey (Lampetra fluviatilis) is much smaller than its larger relative the sea lamprey. It is a migratory fish spawning in rivers and spending its adult life in estuaries and around the coast.

River lamprey, copyright Paul Frear, Environment Agency River lamprey, copyright Paul Frear, Environment Agency


  • Listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list of Threatened Species
  • Listed on Annex III of the Bern Convention and Annex II of the EC Habitats Directive (3).
  • Special Area of Conservation (SAC) Annex II species at a number of sites
  • Rare in the UK
  • Protected under the Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Act, 1975 (as amended)

Typical size: 30-50cm as an adult

Lifespan: 4 to 8 years

Life cycle: Just like the much larger sea lamprey, river lamprey are migratory, spawning in clean sandy gravels in rivers. The young larvae then swim off to the soft marginal silt of the river to grow, feeding on the algae, bacteria and detritus. They can spend five years in the mud before metamorphosing into an adult and migrating down towards the sea.

There they will feed parasitically on fish, such as herring, by the attaching themselves with their sucker-like mouths. 

Appearance: Adults are eel like in size and shape, but they have no gill plates, paired fins or a jawed mouth. They have a silver coloration. They have a uniform grey dorsal coloration and silvery flanks, with obvious gill holes/pores. 

When to see them: Juvenile river lamprey spend their time in the mud so you won’t see them, however, adults migrate up the rivers during the winter and start to spawn in April/May.

Last date edited: 4 July 2016