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From a time before trees: Pacific lamprey return to zoo

June 26, 2024, 10:11 a.m.
Topic: Arrivals and departures, Conservation and species recovery
A pacific lamprey suctioned to the glass

The ancient, eel-like fish are back this week in the Oregon Zoo’s Great Northwest area

The Oregon Zoo’s newest residents are also its oldest: 25 Pacific lamprey moved in this week, and the ancient fish are making themselves right at home. Predating dinosaurs and even trees, this 400-million-year-old native species is an important part of the history and culture of the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re so excited to welcome lamprey back,” said Jen Osburn Eliot, who oversees the zoo’s northwest area. “It’s a great opportunity for guests to get an up-close look at this species and learn all about its natural history and cultural significance in the region.”

Guests can visit the lamprey in the Cascade stream and pond section of the Great Northwest area, where they are often seen suctioned onto the glass of their habitat windows, showcasing sucker-like mouths and concentric rings of sharp yellow teeth.

“Kids are fascinated by this species,” Osburn Eliot said. “We have photo-op cutout boards of various animals around the zoo, and the lamprey cutout is definitely one of the most popular spots for taking pictures.”

The Pacific lamprey, an eel-like fish with a jawless mouth and no scales, has survived three ice ages and five mass extinctions, but populations have declined over the past 75 years due to habitat loss, climate change and food scarcity. They are now considered a species of concern by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as well as the Oregon and Washington state fish and wildlife agencies.

The lamprey came to the zoo from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation as part of a tribal-led effort that collects lamprey returning to fresh water below the three lowest dams on the Columbia River and moves them above the dams to areas where they used to live, allowing the industrious fish to rebuild their own habitat. The lamprey stay at the zoo through the winter, and are transported to tributaries of the upper Columbia and Snake rivers once they’re ready to spawn.

In 2019, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and its member tribes partnered with the Oregon Zoo and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a new lamprey exhibit celebrating this ancient, important fish. The exhibit has since connected millions of guests with the story of lamprey, their cultural significance, and why we all need to protect them.