1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eel

EEL. The common freshwater eel (Lat. anguilla; O. Eng. œl) belongs to a group of soft-rayed fishes distinguished by the presence of an opening to the air-bladder and the absence of the pelvic fins. With its nearest relatives it forms the family Muraenidae, all of which are of elongated cylindrical form. The peculiarities of the eel are the rudimentary scales buried in the skin, the well-developed pectoral fins, the rounded tail fin continuous with the dorsal and ventral fins. Only one other species of the family occurs in British waters, namely, the conger, which is usually much larger and lives in the sea. In the conger the eyes are larger than in the eel, and the upper jaw overlaps the lower, whereas in the eel the lower jaw projects beyond the upper. Both species are voracious and predatory, and feed on almost any animal food they can obtain, living or dead. The conger is especially fond of squid or other Cephalopods, while the eel greedily devours carrion. The common eel occurs in all the rivers and fresh waters of Europe, except those draining towards the Arctic Ocean, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It also occurs on the Atlantic side of North America. The conger has a wider range, extending from the western and southern shores of Britain and Ireland to the East Indian Archipelago and Japan. It is common in the Mediterranean.

The ovaries of the eel resemble somewhat those of the salmon in structure, not forming closed sacs, as in the majority of Teleostei, but consisting of laminae exposed to the body cavity. The laminae in which the eggs are produced are very numerous, and are attached transversely by their inner edges to a membranous band running nearly the whole length of the body-cavity. The majority of the eels captured for market are females with the ovaries in an immature condition. The male eel was first discovered in 1873 by Syrski at Trieste, the testis being described by him as a lobed elongated organ, in the same relative position as the ovary in the female, surrounded by a smooth surface without laminae. He did not find ripe spermatozoa. He discovered the male by examining small specimens, all the larger being female. L. Jacoby, a later observer, found no males exceeding 19 in. in length, while the female may reach a length of 39 in. or more. Dr C. G. J. Petersen, in a paper published in 1896, states that in Denmark two kinds of eels are distinguished by the fishermen, namely, yellow eels and silver eels. The silver eels are further distinguished by the shape of the snout and the size of the eyes. The snout in front of the eyes is not flat, as in the yellow eels, but high and compressed, and therefore appears more pointed, while the eyes are much larger and directed outwards. In both kinds there are males and females, but Petersen shows that the yellow eels change into silver eels when they migrate to the sea. The sexual organs in the silver eels are more developed than in the yellow eels, and the former have almost or entirely ceased to take food. The male silver eels are from 111/2 to 19 in. in length, the females from 161/2 to about 39 in. It is evident, therefore, that if eels only spawn once, they do not all reach the same size when they become sexually mature. The male conger was first described in 1879 by Hermes, who obtained a ripe specimen in the Berlin Aquarium. This specimen was not quite 21/2 ft. in length, and of the numerous males which have been identified at the Plymouth Laboratory, none exceeded this length. The large numbers of conger above this size caught for the market are all immature females. Female conger of 5 or 6 ft. in length and weighing from 30 to 50 ℔ are common enough, and occasionally they exceed these limits. The largest recorded was 8 ft. 3 in. long, and weighed 128 ℔.

There is every reason to believe that eels and conger spawn but once in their lives, and die soon after they have discharged their generative products. When kept in aquaria, both male and female conger are vigorous and voracious. The males sooner or later cease to feed, and attain to the sexually mature condition, emitting ripe milt when handled and gently squeezed. They live in this condition five or six months, taking no food and showing gradual wasting and disease of the bodily organs. The eyes and skin become ulcerated, the sight is entirely lost, and the bones become soft through loss of lime. The females also after a time cease to feed, and live in a fasting condition for five or six months, during which time the ovaries develop and reach great size and weight, while the bones become soft and the teeth disappear. The female, however, always dies in confinement before the ova are perfectly ripe and before they are liberated from the ovarian tissue. The absence of some necessary condition, perhaps merely of the pressure which exists at the bottom of the sea, evidently prevents the complete development of the ovary. The invariable death of the fish in the same almost ripe condition leads to the conclusion that under normal conditions the fish dies after the mature ova have been discharged. G. B. Grassi states that he obtained ripe male eels, and ripe specimens of Muraena, another genus of the family, in the whirlpools of the Strait of Messina. A ripe female Muraena has also been described at Zanzibar. Gravid female eels, i.e. specimens with ovaries greatly enlarged, have been occasionally obtained in fresh water, but there is no doubt that, normally, sexual maturity is attained only in the sea.

Until recent years nothing was known from direct observation concerning the reproduction of the common eel or any species of the family. It was a well-known fact that large eels migrated towards the sea in autumn, and that in the spring small transparent eels of 2 in. in length and upwards were common on the shore under stones, and ascended rivers and streams in vast swarms. It was reasonable, therefore, to infer that the mature eels spawned in the sea, and that there the young were developed.

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Leptocephali. (By permission of J. & A. Churchill.)

A group of peculiar small fishes were, however, known which were called Leptocephali, from the small proportional size of the head. The first of these described was captured in 1763 near Holyhead, and became the type of L. Morrisii, other specimens of which have been taken either near the shore or at the surface of the sea. Other forms placed in the same genus had been taken by surface fishing in the Mediterranean and in tropical ocean currents. The chief peculiarities of Leptocephali, in addition to the smallness of the head, are their ribbon-like shape and their glassy transparency during life. The body is flattened from side to side, and broad from the dorsal to the ventral edge. Like the eels, they are destitute of pelvic fins and no generative organs have been observed in them (see fig.).

In 1864 the American naturalist, T. N. Gill, published the conclusion that L. Morrisii was the young or larva of the conger, and Leptocephali generally the young stages of species of Muraenidae. In 1886 this conclusion was confirmed from direct observation by Yves Delage, who kept alive in a tank at Roscoff a specimen of L. Morrisii, and saw it gradually transformed into a young conger. From 1887 to 1892 Professor Grassi and Dr Calandruccio carried on careful and successful researches into the development of the Leptocephali at Catania, in Sicily. The specimens were captured in considerable numbers in the harbour, and the transformation of L. Morrisii into young conger, and of various other forms of Leptocephalus into other genera of Muraenidae, such as Muraena, Congromuraena and Ophichthys, was observed. In 1894 the same authors published the announcement that another species of Leptocephalus, namely, L. brevirostris, was the larva of the common eel. This larval form was captured in numbers with other Leptocephali in the strong currents of the Strait of Messina. In the metamorphosis of all Leptocephali a great reduction in size occurs. The L. brevirostris reaches a length of 8 cm., or a little more than 21/2 in., while the perfectly-formed young eel is 2 in. long or a little more.

The Italian naturalists have also satisfied themselves that certain pelagic fish eggs originally described by Raffaele at Naples are the eggs of Muraenidae, and that among them are the eggs of Conger and Anguilla. They believe that these eggs, although free in the water, remain usually near the bottom at great depths, and that fertilization takes place under similar conditions. No fish eggs of the kind to which reference is here made have yet been obtained on the British coasts, although conger and eels are so abundant there. Raffaele described and figured the larva newly hatched from one of the eggs under consideration, and it is evident that this larva is the earliest stage of a Leptocephalus.

Although young eels, some of them more or less flat and transparent, are common enough on the coasts of Great Britain and north-western Europe in spring, neither eggs nor specimens of Leptocephalus brevirostris have yet been taken in the North Sea, English Channel or other shallow waters in the neighbourhood of the British Islands, or in the Baltic. Marked eels have been proved to migrate from the inmost part of the Baltic to the Kattegat. Recently, however, search has been made for the larvae in the more distant and deeper portions of the Atlantic Ocean. In May 1904 a true larval specimen was taken at the surface south-west of the Faeroe Islands, and another was taken 40 m. north by west of Achill Head, Ireland. In 1905 numbers were taken in deep water in the Atlantic. The evidence at present available indicates that the spawning of mature eels takes place beyond the 100 fathom line, and that the young eels which reach the coast are already a year old. As eels, both young and old, are able to live for a long time out of water and have the habit of travelling at night over land in wet grass and in damp weather, there is no difficulty in explaining their presence in wells, ponds or other isolated bodies of fresh water at any distance from the sea.

See “The Eel Question,” Report U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries for 1879 (Washington, 1882); J. T. Cunningham, “Reproduction and Development of the Conger,” Journ. Mar. Biol. Assn. vol. ii.; C. G. J. Petersen, Report Dan. Biol. Station, v. (1894); G. B. Grassi, Quart. Journ. Mic. Sci. vol. xxxix. (1897).  (J. T. C.)