European eel (Anguilla anguilla)

European eel swimming
IUCN Red List species status – Critically Endangered CRITICALLY

Top facts

  • The European eel breeds at sea, but migrates into rivers to grow before returning to the sea to spawn some 6 to 20 years later.
  • The first three years of the European eel’s life are spent drifting in the ocean as a larva.
  • It is thought that all European eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea, in the western Atlantic.
  • The European eel is very long-lived, potentially reaching an impressive 85 years old.
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European eel fact file

European eel description

GenusAnguilla (1)

The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) has a very unusual and fascinating life cycle. Adults have long, narrow bodies, with a continuous dorsal, anal and tail-fin (2). The skin is slimy, the lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw, and the scales are tiny or absent (2). The colour of adults depends on their age; they are often brown, black or olive-green with yellowish bellies. Some adults may be silvery (known as 'silver eels'); the lifecycle stages differ greatly in appearance (2).

Also known as
common eel.
Length: up to 1 m (2)

European eel biology

The European eel has a fascinating life-cycle; it is a 'catadromous' species, breeding in the sea and migrating to freshwater in order to grow before returning to the sea to spawn (4). It is thought that all European eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea. The larvae, which look like curled leaves and are known as 'leptocephalli', drift in the plankton for up to three years (2), and are carried by the Gulf Stream towards the coasts of Europe (3). They then undergo metamorphosis into young eels; at this stage they are known as 'glass eels' because they are transparent (2). They become darker in colour and start to migrate up freshwater streams in large numbers; they are known as 'elvers' at this time and measure around 50 millimetres in length (2). The eels, now called 'brown' or 'yellow eels' grow in freshwater (5), with males and females spending 6 to 12 and 9 to 20 years in freshwater, respectively (3). Towards the end of this time, they become sexually mature; they turn a silvery colour and migrate back towards the sea on dark, moonless and stormy nights; during this time they are known as 'silver eels' (5). Upon returning to the sea, the European eel lives in mud, crevices, and under stones (3). Spawning occurs during winter and early spring in the Sargasso Sea (3). This is a very long-lived species with a maximum life span of 85 years (3).

This eel is predated upon by birds, including cormorants and gulls, as well as a number of species of fish (3). Remarkably, they can survive out of water for several hours on damp nights; they may travel overland on dark rainy nights (5).


European eel range

Found in the rivers of the North Atlantic, Baltic and Mediterranean Seas; the European eel also occurs along European coasts from the Black Sea to the White Sea in Russia. Spawning takes place in the Sargasso Sea in the western Atlantic (3).

You can view distribution information for this species at the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

See this species on Google Earth.


European eel habitat

Part of the European eel’s life cycle is spent in the sea, and part in freshwater rivers. It is often common on the shore (2).


European eel status

The European eel is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Critically Endangered


European eel threats

The population of the European eel is threatened at present, and eel stocks have declined in recent years. However, there is currently very little scientific knowledge of this species, which would aid its management. The threats facing the species are unknown; however, pollution, overfishing, habitat degradation, parasite infection and changes in climate have all been forwarded as potential causes of the decline (6).


European eel conservation

The European Union is currently funding research that aims to halt the decline of the European eel population (6).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
There may be further information about this species available via the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.


This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:



Migratory behaviour of some fish that spend most of their lives in freshwater, but migrate to the sea to breed.
Stage in an animal's lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.
An abrupt physical change from the larval to the adult form.
Aquatic organisms that drift with water movements; may be either phytoplankton (plants), or zooplankton (animals).
The production or depositing of large quantities of eggs in water.


  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2008)
  2. Fish, J.D. and Fish, S. (1996) A Student's Guide to the Seashore. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. FishBase (January, 2003)
  4. Strathclyde University (January, 2003)
  5. Silver eel: Integrative Zoology, University of Leiden (January, 2003)
  6. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.

Image credit

European eel swimming  
European eel swimming

© Philippe Garguil / Biosphoto

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