Do Lampreys Attack Humans?
The Terrifying Lamprey
The lamprey is an eel-like creature that attacks its prey by attaching to it with circular rows of fairly nasty-looking teeth. Like an aquatic vampire, it is a parasite that often leaves its victim lifeless.
One can only imagine the terror of encountering these things in their natural setting, and becoming lunch for a creature that seems to have been hand-built by a horror movie producer. They're wriggly, slimy and very mean looking, and given the choice you may prefer to wrestle a great white shark.
But perception isn't always reality, especially when it comes to snaky critters. As humans we tend to have an oft-unjustified fear of long, snake-like beasts, and that means the lamprey has an uphill climb if it wants to earn our affection.
Of the other hand, it's a nasty blood parasite that latches onto other fish, sometimes in great numbers. With its jawless mouth, sharp teeth and rasping tongue it grinds away bits of its host, leaving a gaping hole when it is done. We can imagine a lamprey attack as a pretty horrible way to check out of this world.
Sounds bad, but do you really have anything to worry about if you aren't a fish? Do lampreys really attack humans, and should we fear this monster? Or, is the danger all in our imagination?
Here's a closer look at this terrifying creature.
Different Types of Lampreys
The lamprey isn't an eel, although it resembles one and is often referred to as such. It's actually a species of primitive, scale-less fish. Like the bizarre Coelacanth, this creature can be considered a "living fossil".
There are many species worldwide. Here are a few of found in the United States and Canada.
- The sea lamprey lives in the open ocean of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, as well as Delaware River, the Great Lakes and other large North American lakes.
- The silver lamprey is often found in the Great Lakes as well as the Mississippi River, Ohio River and their tributaries.
- The Northern brook lamprey is found in North America in the Great Lakes region.
- The American brook lamprey occurs primarily in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River regions, and as far north as the rivers of Alaska.
- The chestnut lamprey is often found in the Hudson Bay, and the rivers and lakes of Northern Canada, as well as the Great Lakes region.
How Big Do They Get?
Before we worry about size, it's important to realize that not all Lampreys are parasites. The American Brook Lamprey and the Northern Brook Lamprey pose no danger to human or fish. While they reach a creepy half-foot in length or so, as juveniles they are filter feeders and as adults they do not consume nutrition, only living a short time.
But the Sea Lamprey is known to prey on large marine fish, including sharks. Their spread across the Great Lakes region has tipped the balance of power in many areas, as they have decimated the natural predators of the area. For this reason they are seen as a pest, and an undesirable species.
So how big does a Sea Lamprey get? According to most sources, these critters average about two feet in length, with the largest specimens topping out over three feet. That doesn't sound too bad, until you picture a three-foot, razor-toothed bloodsucker lurking in the dark of the water as you merrily swim along.
Worse still would be a bunch of these evil-looking monsters grabbing you at once.
What Do Lampreys Eat?
Parasitic lampreys attack and latch onto other fish. Using their rows of teeth and tongue they grind into the host and draw out blood and other fluids. Fishermen often catch fish with circular holes rasped into them from lamprey attacks, or even fish with Lampreys still attached.
In the ocean, sea lampreys aren't shy about attacking much larger fish, and have even been noted latching onto specimens like the massive Basking Shark.
In the Great Lakes they have destroyed local trout and salmon populations in some areas. When they attack they often kill their host, and even those victims who survive must spend a great amount of energy on recovering from their wounds.
Obviously, at least some lampreys in some areas are a big problem. If you are a fish, even a very large one, these guys might be your worst enemy. If this parasitic menace doesn't back down from latching onto a 30-foot behemoth like the basking shark it is hard to imagine it would think twice about we humans.
So, do lampreys really attack people?
Does the Lamprey Attack Humans?
The short answer: You betcha! At least if you believe the anecdotal evidence.
While they prefer fish, and won't come after we humans with nearly the same ferocity as they do aquatic creatures, there are accounts of lamprey attacks on humans.
In one interesting story from ancient times, a wealthy Roman named Vedius Pollio kept a pool with hungry lampreys into which he would throw incompetent servants or anyone else he didn't like so much. Whether this is true or not, obviously, even dating back to antiquity, people had some reason to fear a lamprey attack.
Despite this bizarre account, experts suggest these creatures would only attack a human out of mistaken identity. They prefer cold-blooded animals, and we humans simply aren't on the menu.
But on rare occasions it apparently happens. On the Animal Planet show River Monsters a long-distance swimmer recounted a story where he was attacked by a large sea lamprey in open water. If this is true, it's hard not to have this creature on your mind if you are swimming in water where they are known to lurk.
Swimmer Attacked by Lamprey
Should You Fear the Lamprey?
Getting attacked by one of these beasts as you tread water in a lake or sea is a terrifying nightmare. Several of them coming at you at once is an almost unimaginable terror. But there are a couple of things to consider, and a few advantages we humans have over even the biggest fish.
While a lamprey latching onto you would surely be unpleasant, they do their real damage as they grate at their host's flesh for hours, days or even weeks. As high-level primates we have opposable thumbs, and most of us are more intelligent than a fish. We have the strength and wherewithal to shuck these little monsters off as soon as they grab hold. Even if one does zero in on you, the danger is minimal. Of course that likely won't make you feel much better at the time!
But what about a situation where perhaps dozens of them attack a single human in deep water? Or, what if there are even larger lamprey species out there which we could not overpower? The mind reels, but fortunately there are no such documented encounters.
The lamprey is a creepy bloodsucker, but ultimately poses little threat to humans. But if you encounter one in the dark waters of a cold lake or ocean you aren't likely to forget it.