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

Lesser sand eel (Ammodytes tobianus)

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



The lesser sand eel is long and thin with a pointed jaw and a maximum length of 20 cm. They are yellowish green on the back with occasional bluish tint. The lower sides and belly are silver, giving the fish an overall silvery appearance. Body completely covered in scales, with the scales forming oblique lines of tight chevrons on the underside. There is a single long dorsal fin, and the anal fin is half the length of the dorsal fin. The tail fin is small and distinctively forked. The lower jaw is longer than the upper and there are no teeth in the roof of the mouth.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

Widely distributed around Britain and Ireland.

Global distribution



Found from mid-tide level over sandy shores to the shallow sublittoral to depths of 30 metres. They bury themselves 20-50 cm deep in the sand during the winter.

Depth range


Identifying features

  • Elongated narrow body with pointed jaw.
  • Forked tail fan.
  • Maximum length 20 cm.
  • Single long dorsal fin; anal fin half its length.

Additional information

Ammodytes tobianus is the most abundant species of sand eel found in British waters. It has been reported to spawn in spring and summer (Dipper, 2001) or spring and autumn (FishBase, 2000). Eggs are laid in the sand where they adhere to the sand grains. Each female produces 4000-20,000 eggs, which hatch after a few weeks. Their diet consists of zooplankton and some large diatoms as well as worms, small crustaceans and small fish. They swim in schools with heads down and dart into the sand immediately on sign of danger.

Sand eel species are difficult to distinguish underwater (Dipper, 2001). However, if specimens are available, the greater sand eel Hyperoplus lanceolatus can be distinguished from Ammodytes tobianus by presence of teeth in the roof of the mouth and by its inability to protrude its upper jaw. Individuals may reach 7 years of age but 4 years is more common.

Listed by

Further information sources

Search on:


  1. Dipper, F., 2001. British sea fishes (2nd edn). Teddington: Underwater World Publications Ltd.

  2. FishBase, 2000. FishBase. A global information system on fishes. [On-line], 2001-05-03

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

  4. 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.]

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

  6. 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:

Rowley, S.J. 2008. Ammodytes tobianus Lesser sand 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 23-09-2018]. Available from:

Last Updated: 08/05/2008

Tags: sand eel sandeel