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Lampreys Aren't Dangerous — Except For That One Time They Killed a King

Even the oddest, scariest-looking of creatures can change the course of history. Take, for example, the sea lampreys that led to the downfall of a king.


It's not a face to launch a thousand ships. The frightening face of the lamprey probably couldn't even manage a light flotilla. Maybe just one or two fishing boats, to be honest. But even the oddest, scariest-looking of creatures, like lampreys, can have a role in life if they're in the right place at the right time. They can even change the course of history.

 

Let's face it: Lampreys don't have a lot going for them, appearance-wise.

 

They have a line of seven gills and one eye on each side of the body, plus one nostril on top of the head. Not exactly fetching.

 

Weighing up to a pound, measuring anything from 5 to 30 inches long, and muddy of hue, they somewhat resemble eels — but they're nostril-headed eels with one other startling difference.

 

It's that mouth, isn't it? It's that fearsome, funnel-like, sucking circle of death.

 

That gaping orifice, filled with rasping teeth and a tissue-destroying tongue, that clamps to the soft, fleshy parts of other aquatic creatures, bores into them and begins to suck out their blood and internal juices.

That's the real reason they don't get invited to parties.

 

In truth, it's not an eel at all. The lamprey is actually a jawless fish of the order Petromyzontiformes. That's right, jawless.

 

That maw is permanently wide open and ready for horrifying action.

 

The lamprey's mouth produces an anticoagulant that prevents the blood of its prey from clotting. That means it can drain each victim with minimum fuss. So efficient is the parasitic lamprey that it can burrow into and devour up to 40 pounds of fish every year.

That word "parasitic" is important, though, because it's fair to point out that not all lampreys are the stuff of horror movies. Only 18 of the 38 known species of lampreys actually munch on their neighbors in the way we've described.

 

And very few cases of them attacking humans have been recorded — though it's not unheard of.

 

The fact is, non-parasitic lampreys don't feed at all! Instead, they live off a store of nutrition that was built up when they were larvae. Non-parasitic lamprey larvae filter water through those laterally placed lines of gills and extract their sustenance from microscopic particles of matter in the water. Harmless enough, you might say.

Many lampreys are diadromous, beginning life in freshwater rivers and then migrating huge distances in the ocean as adults before returning to their place of birth to spawn and die. Just like salmon — very inspiring.

 

So ... about that one time lampreys killed a king ...

King Henry I of England

 

Yet, even if they're not parasitic bloodsuckers, lamprey can still be cold-blooded killers. Since at least as far back as the Romans, lampreys have been considered a dietary delicacy in societies as widespread as Portugal, Finland, South Korea and New Zealand.

 

For the wealthy, crowned heads of medieval Europe, lampreys meant a tastier alternative to the normally bland fish served up during Lent.

 

However, it's said that for Henry I of England they proved to be an undoing. The story goes that, in the year 1135, Henry was camping in his lands near Rouen in France. After a particularly strenuous day about his kingly duties, he called for his favorite dinner: lampreys, of course.

They were cooked in the traditional way: steeped in wine, heavily spiced and roasted. Against all advice, the aged king consumed this hearty meal but, soon after, was taken ill and died.

The "surfeit of lampreys" that killed Henry I may be no more than a colorful story that became part of medieval myth, but it may well have one foot in the truth. Even if it wasn't the richness of the meal that saw off the monarch, it's quite possible it was food poisoning.

 

Several lamprey species secrete serum and mucus that's toxic if ingested by humans.

 

Preparation and cleaning of these suckers has to be handled very carefully if you want to avoid unpleasantness — something probably not too high on the list of priorities at a medieval military cookout.

 

It is indeed good to be the king. Unless you're having lampreys for lunch, of course, in which case things can really suck.

 

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