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

Common eel (Anguilla anguilla)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.



The common eel is long and snake-like in shape with a tough, slimy skin. The dorsal fin starts on the back some way behind the gill slits and small pectoral fins and runs the length of the body. At the tail the dorsal fin merges with the ventral fin, that runs along the underside of the body. The eel can be black, brown or dark olive green in colour above, paler and yellowish on the underside. Sexually maturing eels become silver rather than yellow.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

Widely distributed around the British and Irish coast.

Global distribution

Common in rivers, estuaries around the coast of northern Europe.


The adult eel is most abundant in estuaries and low salinity pools but is also found around the coast in permanent tide pools, on the lower shore and shallow sublittoral. Being nocturnal it is inactive during the day under rocks or weed or in soft sediments.

Depth range


Identifying features

  • Slender snake-like body usually less than 1m long.
  • The dorsal and ventral fins arise well behind the gill slits and pectoral fins.
  • They are continuous and meet in a point at the tail.
  • The lower jaw protrudes slightly from the upper jaw.
  • Small, round eyes.
  • Colour usually dark brown, black or olive green on the back, lighter and yellowish on the underside.
  • Slimy skin with tiny scales embedded in it.

Additional information

Anguilla anguilla has a complex life history that is poorly understood. It involves migration of mature adults from European rivers and estuaries to the Sargasso Sea in the west Atlantic for spawning, and the subsequent return of juveniles. They metamorphose twice, part of the life cycle spent in fresh water and part in estuarine or full sea water (Whitehead et al., 1986). The adult eels and the returning juveniles (elvers) are commercially fished. The common eel has small eyes and its lower jaw projects from the upper, which distinguishes it from the conger eel, Conger conger. In the common eel the dorsal fin arises about a head's length behind the gill slits and pectoral fins while in the conger eel the fin arises further forward, from just behind the pectoral fins.

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Further information sources

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  1. Froese, R. & Pauly, D., 2004. Fishbase. A global information system on fishes. [On-line], 2004-10-18

  2. Hayward, P., Nelson-Smith, T. & Shields, C. 1996. Collins pocket guide. Sea shore of Britain and northern Europe. London: HarperCollins.

  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. Muus, B.J. & Dahlstrom, P., 1974. Collins guide to the sea fishes of Britain and North-Western Europe. Wm Collins Sons & Co. Ltd: London.

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

  6. Wheeler, A., 1969. The fishes of the British Isles and north-west Europe. London: Macmillan.

  7. Wheeler, A., 1994. Field Key to the Shore Fishes of the British Isles. Shrewsbury: Field Studies Council.

  8. Whitehead, P.J.P., Bauchot, M.-L., Hureau, J.-C., Nielson, J. & Tortonese, E. 1986. Fishes of the North-eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Vol. I, II & III. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).


This review can be cited as:

Avant, P. 2007. Anguilla anguilla Common eel. 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 19-09-2018]. Available from:

Last Updated: 03/09/2007