information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles

European river lamprey (Lampetra fluviatilis)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.
Only coastal and marine records shown



Lampreys belong to a group of vertebrates known as Agnatha which means 'jawless fish'. Their mouth is a toothed circular sucking disk. They have long elongated eel-like bodies. They can also be recognised by their gills which open directly to each side of the head in the form of a line of seven gill holes behind the eye. The back and sides of Lampetra fluviatilis have a uniform colour pattern consisting of a brown dorsal colouring, golden yellow sides and a white ventral colouring. It may reach up to 30-40 cm in length.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

Occurs close to the coast throughout the UK and Ireland, migrating upstream many British and Irish rivers in August to spawn .

Global distribution



Lampetra fluviatilis is a demersal and anadromous species found in a wide range of riverine and coastal habitats.

Depth range


Identifying features

  • Long eel-like body up to 30-40 cm in length.
  • Brown dorsal colouring, golden yellow sides and a white belly; no marbled colouring.
  • Circular sucking disk for a mouth with sharp teeth.
  • Seven conspiculous gill holes in a line behind the eye.
  • Scales, paired fins and gill covers are absent.

Additional information

Relatively easily distinguished from the sea lamprey Petromyzon marinus by its considerably smaller size and uniform colour pattern. It can be distinguished from another species, the brook lamprey, Lampetra planeri by its much larger size (the brook lamprey rarely reaching over 18 cm in length) and the two distinct dorsal fins (the brook lamprey only having one continuous dorsal fin). Schreiber and Engelhorn (1998) however, found very little difference in the DNA content between both species suggesting Lampetra fluviatilis may just be an anadromous form of Lampetra planeri.

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Further information sources

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  1. Bristow, P., 1992. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fishes. Chancellor Press, London.

  2. Froese, R. & Pauly, D., 2007. Fishbase. A global information system on fishes. [On-line], 2008-02-18

  3. Howson, C.M. & Picton, B.E., 1997. The species directory of the marine fauna and flora of the British Isles and surrounding seas. Belfast: Ulster Museum. [Ulster Museum publication, no. 276.]

  4. Igoe, F., Quigley, D.T.G., Marnell, F., Meskell, E., O'Connor, W. & Byrne, C., 2004. The sea lamprey Petromyzon marinus (L.), river lamprey Lampetra fluviatilis (L.) and brook lamprey Lampetra planeri (Bloch) in Ireland: general biology, ecology, distribution and status with recommendations for conservation. Biology and Environment. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section B, 104B-S, 43-56.

  5. Kurz, I. & Costello, M.J., 1999. An Outline of the Biology, Distribution and Conservation of Lampreys in Ireland. In Marnell, F. (ed.), Irish Wildlife Manuals No5

  6. National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas website. Available from:  Accessed 01 April 2017

  7. OBIS,  2018. Global map of species distribution using gridded data. Available from: Ocean Biogeographic Information System. Accessed: 2018-08-20

  8. Potter, I.C. & Huggins, R.J., 1973. Observations on the morphology, behaviour and salinity tolerance of downstream migrating river lampreys (Lampetra fluviatilis). Journal of Zoology, 169, 365-379

  9. Schreiber, A. & Engelhorn, R., 1998. Population genetics of a cyclostone species pair, river lamprey (Lampetra fluviatilis L.) and brook lamprey (Lampetra planeri, Bloch). Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research, 36, 85-99


This review can be cited as:

Barnes, M.K.S. 2008. Lampetra fluviatilis European river lamprey. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 20-08-2018]. Available from:

Last Updated: 27/03/2008