When the Earth was born, lifeforms emerged, many of which can now only be seen in fossils. All the information we know of dinosaurs is in the rock and genetic traces within a few modern-day animals. However, there are species from the time of dinosaurs that still exist today and have evolved very little. Even creatures from before the time of dinosaurs, such as the ancient lamprey, still exist today.

Modern-day Lewis County is home to plentiful wildlife, including deer, foxes, bears, squirrels, lynxes, bald eagles, crows, and much more. Little is known about the Pacific Lamprey, which lives in the Chehalis River. The ancient species are approximately 400 million years old and have evolved very little over the millions of years, making them older than dinosaurs and even trees. However, the lamprey in the Chehalis River is closer to 20 million years old.

Lampry is a fish species closely related to the marine Hagfish. Lamprey have no jaw and parasitically feed on other fish as well as whales, leaving small circular wounds upon the host. Their mouths are filled with little teeth some might have nightmares about, but they serve a suction cup-like effect for the center. A single larger tooth is used to penetrate the flesh and suck the blood of the host, leaving a ring-shaped cut and a hole in the center.

Chehalis River Lamprey
The Chehalis River is home to the ancient lamprey. Photo credit: Steven Abelson

Lamprey Species in Washington

According to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Lamprey Biologist Monica Blanchard, “We have two native lamprey species in Washington — Pacific Lamprey (Entosphenus tridentataus) and Western River/Western Brook Lamprey (Lampetra ayresii). Until recently, we thought we had three species, but a genetic study suggests that Western River and Western Brook are the same species with different life history strategies. This is similar to steelhead and rainbow trout, which are the same species, although some individuals go to the ocean and others stay in freshwater. The lampreys that go to the ocean are referred to as Western River Lamprey, and those that stay in freshwater are called Western Brook Lamprey, but they are the same species. “

Chehalis River Lamprey
A close-up of a lamprey’s mouth shows its circular opening. Photo credit: Monica Blanchard of WDFW

Is lamprey an invasive species?

The lamprey species in the Chehalis River are native to the environment, according to Blanchard. All native creatures have positive and sometimes negative impacts on the surrounding environment. However, the lamprey has many positive effects on the environment.

“They are a nutrient- and fat-dense food source that many other fish, birds, invertebrates, and mammals take advantage of in both the freshwater and marine environments,” says Blanchard. “They act as a predation buffer when migrating out to the ocean with salmonid smolts and migrating back to the freshwater with salmonid adults. When anadromous lampreys return from the ocean to spawn, they bring marine-derived nutrients to the freshwater ecosystems. Just like salmon and steelhead, these nutrients foster healthier freshwater environments. Lampreys create habitat that benefits other species. Larval lampreys, which are filter feeders for up to ten years in the streambed, help with nutrient cycling by bringing suspended food in the water column to the streambed for other species to eat. Larval lampreys also enhance the streambed environment through their burrowing activities, which aerate and soften the streambed, similar to how a worm benefits soil. Adult lampreys make nests to lay their eggs, and this nest becomes good habitat for recently emerged fry, amphibian egg masses, and invertebrates, many of which feed juvenile.”

Like many creatures, lamprey faces challenges such as population decline, environmental changes, or overhunting.

“The Chehalis Basin Pacific Lampreys are considered imperiled, but their populations have been stable over the past 15 years or more,” says Blanchard. “The main threats to lampreys in the basin are stream and floodplain degradation, water quality impacts such as high water temperatures, and how these threats will be intensified by climate change. Additionally, passage impediments, dewatered streams, and predation cause problems for lampreys in parts of the watershed.”

Chehalis River Lamprey
Lamprey from the Humptulips Basin. Photo credit: Monica Blanchard of WDFW

What is the difference between Sea Lamprey and Pacific Lamprey?

The difference is the location. Sea Lamprey are native to the Atlantic Ocean, and Pacific Lamprey are native to the Pacific Ocean. In the Chehalis River, both Pacific and Western River Lamprey are present, and even though some may find them to be scary, they are not to be feared but to be respected like all wildlife.

The lamprey helps the rivers thrive and stay healthy, as do many creatures if they are native to the environment. Greater awareness of what lives with us can help us understand the environment and the intricate details of how one element encourages the other.

The world is filled with ancient creatures, many of which people never see. Science is a language that helps people understand life better.

Many thanks to The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Lamprey Biologist Monica Blanchard for her information and the agency’s great work. Be sure to visit The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website and learn more about the incredible ancient wildlife, like the lamprey living in the Chehalis River, just outside your door.

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