Nature Nugget – The American Eel

The life of the American Eel is very complex and involves the broadest diversity of habitats of any fish species in the world. Also known as the Freshwater Eel, it occurs in freshwater rivers and lakes, estuaries, coastal areas, and open ocean from Greenland south along the Atlantic coast of North America, throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and inland throughout the eastern half of North and Central America and parts of northern South America.

American Eels are nocturnal carnivores, feeding on insects, mollusks, crustaceans, worms, and other fish. They hunt their prey by smell, since they have very poor eyesight. During the day, they hide in rock crevices or dig under the mud or sand to avoid predators. In the more northern latitudes, they spend the winter buried in the mud in a state of dormancy. They are well-known for their ability to maneuver around and over seemingly impassable obstacles such as spillways, dams, and waterfalls. They are even capable of leaving the water and traveling overland for short distances. Their slippery, slimy bodies make it difficult for predators to grasp them.

American Eels are catadromous, spending most of their lives in freshwater and estuaries and migrating to the ocean to spawn. This is the opposite of anadromous species such as the Pacific salmons, which spend most of their lives in the ocean and migrate to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. American Eels begin and end their lives in an area of the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda called the Sargasso Sea. After hatching, the pelagic larvae, called leptocephalus, drift with the ocean currents for 9 to 12 months before entering coastal waters. When they reach approximately 2.4 inches in length, the larvae metamorphoses into a transparent “glass” eel. In autumn, the glass eels migrate into estuaries where they become pigmented and are then known as elvers. Some elvers, mainly males, remain in the estuaries and lower river stretches while the females migrate upstream, often for several hundred miles.

The eels, now in their “yellow” color phase, will remain in these fresh and brackish water habitats for the next 5 to 20 years. During this time, the females may reach a length of four to five feet and weigh up to 15 pounds, while the males attain a length of only about two feet.

Before beginning their migration back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die, the eels must undergo profound physical changes. Just prior to beginning their journey, the eels stop feeding, their eyes and pectoral fins enlarge, and their body color and pattern changes. The now sexually mature eels have a gray back, a pure white belly, and a silvery bronze sheen on their flanks. The migration occurs on autumn nights with the now transformed adults descending rivers and streams for a mid-winter to spring spawning in the warm Sargasso Sea. Females lay between two to four million eggs, depending on their size, and the eggs soon hatch to start the cycle over again.

Just as the American Eel must undergo a transformation before it can begin its final migration home to the Sargasso Sea, so Christians must undergo a transformation into the image of Christ before they can travel home to heaven. “Christ is sitting for His portrait in every disciple. Every one God has predestinated to be ‘conformed to the image of His Son.’ Romans 8:29. In every one Christ’s long-suffering love, His holiness, meekness, mercy, and truth are to be manifested to the world.” The Desire of Ages, 827. “If this transformation has not been experienced by you, rest not. Seek the Lord with all your hearts. Make this the all-important business of your lives.” Testimonies, vol. 2, 179.

David Arbour writes from his home in DeQueen, Arkansas. He may be contacted by e-mail at: