How do Eels Reproduce and Where on Earth do They Come From?

Eels have confounded us for thousands of years and frustrated the finest minds. Despite the attention of Freud, Aristotle, and many others, the eel has remained an elusive specimen.

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When we count the wonders of the world, you’d never imagine the eel’s reproductive system would warrant consideration as an unofficial ninth wonder. This mystery became a worldwide phenomenon long before colethesciencedude on TikTok made it a hot social media topic.

Before we continue, you should know this fish is different from Electric eels. Those aren’t even real eels. They’re South American Knifefishes!

The invention of microscopes and other advanced equipment helped scientists solve the riddles of the past century. They could study the freshwater eel that evaded them for so long. Research showed that these sea creatures did have reproductive organs.

The only issue was that you couldn’t see it until the adult eel reached the Sargasso Sea. That’s unlike any other sea creature in the world.

Read more: Can the Pistol Shrimp Hurt a Human?

Where do eels come from?

This question has troubled the minds of great scientists from time immemorial. Every philosopher worth his salt took a crack at unraveling the mystery of the eels’ origin.

Aristotle suggested eels came from Earthworms who got out of the mud. Sigmund Freud dedicated 10 hours daily to studying this snake-like fish. Other scientists claimed they came from spontaneous regeneration.

n 1876, while a student, Sigmund Freud spent a summer in the Italian coastal town of Trieste. He assisted Professor Carl Claus and spent four weeks dissecting 400 eels, trying to find testes. (Photo: Wikimedia/Max Halberstadt)
n 1876, while a student, Sigmund Freud spent a summer in the Italian coastal town of Trieste. He assisted Professor Carl Claus and spent four weeks dissecting 400 eels, trying to find testes. (Photo: Wikimedia/Max Halberstadt)

After many expeditions aimed at catching eels, the first breakthrough came in 1886. French zoologist Yves Delage saw his leptocephalus change into an eel, then realized all sub-species were, in fact, steps of an entire life-cycle! In 1904, after spending 20 years on freshwater research, Johannes Schmidt discovered their migration pattern.

Do eels have reproductive organs?

After Schmidt’s discovery, a new question arose – “Do eels have reproductive organs?” How did they mate?

Freud wrote, “…all I can think about are the big questions, the ones that go hand in hand with testicles and ovaries – the universal, pivotal questions.”

We know they aren’t asexual animals. However, no one ever saw an eel with genitals not even in its transparent state! So, where did the offspring originate?

Zoologist Lucy Cooke has a theory that eels form from external fertilization. She suggests clouds of sperm fertilize free-floating eggs.

Curiosity led to another fantastic discovery. The spawnings traveled by ocean currents from the Sargasso Sea.

Migration to the Sargasso Sea

Eels start their lives from the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They need saltwater for development. The ocean’s current forms a sea within a sea like a Russian doll.

The Sargasso Sea is a region of the Atlantic Ocean bounded by four currents: Gulf Steam (West), North Atlantic Current (North), Canary Current (East), and the North Atlantic Equatorial Current (South). Together, these four currents form a system of ocean currents known as the North Atlantic Gyre. Unlike all other regions called seas, it has no land boundaries. (Photo: Wikimedia/Pasixxxx)
The Sargasso Sea is a region of the Atlantic Ocean bounded by four currents: Gulf Steam (West), North Atlantic Current (North), Canary Current (East), and the North Atlantic Equatorial Current (South). Together, these four currents form a system of ocean currents known as the North Atlantic Gyre. Unlike all other regions called seas, it has no land boundaries. (Photo: Wikimedia/Pasixxxx)

Although they spend their lives in fresh water, eels always return to the sea to breed. That’s why there’s no known account of their actual spawning grounds. There’s the historical myth about expeditions in the Bermuda triangle. It doesn’t get more elusive than this.

Before Delage’s discovery, scientists thought there were many eel species. It turned out they were just one species going through their life stages.

The life cycle of European eels

Adding to the uniqueness of the Anguilla species is their sex determination. Environment plays a significant role in knowing their gender. You can’t tell until they reach the Sargasso Sea.

There are two sexes of the eel. Young males live for an average of 12 years, while females live longer at 18 years. They go through five live stages – Egg – Larva – Glass eel – Elver – Silver eel.

Life cycle of eels and their migration patterns. (Image: Shutterstock)
The life cycle of eels and their migration patterns. (Image: Shutterstock)

Eels aren’t strong swimmers at the beginning of their lives, so the ocean current carries them from their homes. The fish goes through body changes at each stage. They grow more prominent features with darker skin.

Eel larvae

The first metamorphosis baby eels change to the larval stage. Some people call the larvae “Fingerlings” and Leptocephalus. They have significantly bigger bodies than other fish larvae.

Baby eels form when the larvae absorb yolks in the eyes and teeth. Then they feed on marine snow and particulate organic matter for more growth. Eel larvae travel for about 17 months towards estuaries.

Glass eels

At 18 months, this fish becomes an underdeveloped Glass eel. The juveniles then enter river bays. Young eels these days face difficulties swimming into the open ocean because of the flood defenses in the coastline.

Elvers

The pre-adult stage at two-three years is when Elvers form. They have a dark yellow pigment and stretch between 8 – 20cm (3.14  – 7.87 inches). That’s a little shorter than a mature eel.

They feed on crustaceans, worms, and insects. Yellow eels live upstream (streams and rivers) for 10 – 14 years until they mature and migrate back to the Sargasso Sea.

Adult eel

The final lap in the cycle is the adult stage. They grow into large eels with big eyes at the length of 60 – 80cm (23.62 – 31.49 inches) in the saltwater.

Adult eels (Silver eels) develop a silver skin tone as a sign of sexual maturity. At this stage, they leave the freshwater and move to the tropical sea.

The female adult eels release their eggs for male fertilization, after which both die. The spawns hatch into larvae and migrate back into brackish waters.

Eel farming

Eel farming is a lucrative part of the billion-dollar aquaculture industry. Statistics show that 60% of people eat eel meat. This fish’s round elongated body is a nutritious source of protein.

This venture is typical in Europe, Morocco, Australia, Taiwan, China, and Scandinavian countries. Japan is the largest single producer.

Breeding this fish is a simple process. Eels thrive at 23°C-28°C, which makes them suitable for warm weather. They feed on meat so, you have to grade them periodically. Separate all the eels by size to avoid cannibalism – mature fish would eat the smaller ones.

Eel farming proves to be an endangerment to the species. Yellow eels and Glass eels are at risk of extinction. The American and European eels are on various endangered species lists. That led to a ban on eel trade from Northern Africa to Europe.

Do eels reproduce in captivity?

So far, we know breeders buy Elvers to restock depleting ponds. Others stock wild Glass eels instead. Experts advise owners to quarantine new stock to prevent infection.

Although the majority agree there’s no known reproductive organ of the eels, some disagree.

Sebastian Politis, a researcher at the National Institute of Aquatic Resources, says, “We definitely have seen eels that have reproductive organs – we’re reproducing eels in captivity.” Newsweek did a Fact Check in August and confirmed this position.

Recent discoveries back up the claim of existing reproductive organs in adult eels when they reach the Sargasso Sea. Why that happens remains a scientific mystery.

Eel species

There are many variations of the Anguilla species. Each one has a different breeding ground. The most popular is the European eel that grows in brackish water and fresh water.

On the surface, all American and European eels look alike, but you’ll note variations when you look closer. Their internal organs are different. Others are American eel (Anguilla rostrata), Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica), South African eel living in the ocean off Madagascar, and New Zealand Longfins.

American eel

This species is in the middle of the conservation scale. It spends its life span in fresh water and the Baltic sea. Studies show American eels migrating across the continental shelf to the Sargasso Sea in the early spring for spawning.

Scientists tracked the movement of mature eels with satellite implants. They noticed American eels had two migration parts. The first was along the continental shelf, while the other was in deep waters towards the spawning ground.

This species is as prevalent as its European counterpart.

Read more: How Lobsters Communicate: You Think You’ve Got Problems?

Summary

Although the theories on the breeding area for eels are based on inference, they aren’t far-fetched. One thing is sure, eels migrate from the Sargasso Sea into open waters and return there at the end of their lives.

It’s unlikely that we’d ever catch adult eels in estuaries or upstream, so we may never know for sure. Maybe scientists can be brave enough to lead more daring expeditions into the Sargasso Sea in the near future. Until then, we’re content with the information we have.

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