Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries

, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 367–398 | Cite as

The European eel (Anguilla anguilla, Linnaeus), its Lifecycle, Evolution and Reproduction: A Literature Review

  • Vincent J. T. van Ginneken
  • Gregory E. Maes
Research Article


The European eel (Anguilla anguilla Linnaeus 1758) is a species typical for waters of Western Europe. Thanks to early expeditions on the Atlantic Ocean by the Danish biologist Johannes Schmidt who found small (<10mm) leptocephali larvae in the Sargasso Sea about 100 years ago, we have now a strong indication where the spawning site for this species is located. The American eel (Anguilla rostrata, LeSueur) also spawns in the Sargasso Sea. The spawning time and location of both species have been supported and refined in recent analyses of the available historical data. Subsequent ichthyoplankton surveys conducted by McCleave (USA) and Tesch (Germany) in the 1980s indicated an increase in the number of leptocephali <10 mm , confirming and refining the Sargasso Sea theory of Johannes Schmidt. Distinctions between the European and American eel are based on morphological characteristics (number of vertebrae) as well as molecular markers (allozymes, mitochondrial DNA and anonymous genomic-DNA. Although recognised as two distinct species, it remains unclear which mechanisms play a role in species separation during larval drift, and what orientation mechanism eels use during migration in the open sea. The current status of knowledge on these issues will be presented. The hypothesis that all European eel migrate to the Sargasso Sea for reproduction and comprise a single randomly mating population, the so called panmixia theory, was until recently broadly accepted. However, based on field observations, morphological parameters and molecular studies there are some indications that Schmidt’s claim of complete homogeneity of the European eel population and a unique spawning location may be an overstatement. Recent molecular work on European eel indicated a genetic mosaic consisting of several isolated groups, leading to a rejection of the panmixia theory. Nevertheless, the latest extensive genetic survey indicated that the geographical component of genetic structure lacked temporal stability, emphasising the need for temporal replication in the study of highly vagile marine species. Induced spawning of hormone treated eels in the aquarium was collective and simultaneous. In this work for the first time group spawning behaviour has ever been observed and recorded in eels. Studies in swim-tunnels indicate that eels can swim four to six times more efficiently than non-anguilliform fish such as trout. After a laboratory swim trial of eels over 5,500 km, the body composition did not change and fat, protein and carbohydrate were used in the same proportion. This study demonstrated for the first time that European eel are physiologically able of reaching the Sargasso Sea without feeding. Based on catches of newly hatched larvae, temperature preference tests and telemetry tracking of mature hormone treated animals, it can be hypothesised that spawning in the Sargasso Sea is collective and simultaneous, while presumably taking place in the upper 200 m of the ocean. Successful satellite tracking of longfin female eels in New Zealand has been performed to monitor migration pathways. Implementation of this new technology is possible in this species because it is three times larger than the European eel. In the future, miniaturisation of tagging technology may allow European eels to be tracked in time by satellite. The most interesting potential contribution of telemetry tracking of silver eels is additional knowledge about migration routes, rates, and depths. In combination with catches of larvae in the Sargasso Sea, it may elucidate the precise spawning locations of different eel species or groups. Only then, we will be able to define sustainable management issues by integrating this novel knowledge into spawners escapement and juvenile fishing quota.


Anguilla Migration Sargasso Sea Molecular studies Spawning behaviour Satellite 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Vincent J. T. van Ginneken
    • 1
  • Gregory E. Maes
    • 2
  1. 1.Integrative Zoology, van der Klaauw LaboratoriumInstitute Biology LeidenLeidenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Laboratory of Aquatic EcologyKatholieke Universiteit LeuvenLeuvenBelgium

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