Spiny Eel Species

There are two spiny eel species found in the deep water environments around the British Isles – the shortfin spiny eel (Notacanthus bonaparte) and the snub-nose spiny eel (Notacanthus chemnitzii). There are four other species of spiny eel found elsewhere in the world. Despite being commonly named as eels, and having an eel-like appearance, spiny eels are not true eels at all but are in fact fish species.

Shortfin Spiny Eel

Shortfin Spiny Eel

  • Scientific name: Notacanthus bonaparte
  • Also know as: Bonaparte’s Spiny Eel
  • Size: Up to 30cm
  • UK minimum size: N/a
  • UK shore caught record: N/a
  • IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
  • Distribution: Found in deep-sea waters throughout Europe, particularly the Mediterranean, and deep-sea areas around the British Isles.
  • Feeds on: Small marine invertebrates and crustaceans.
  • Description: Long slender body which tapers to a point with no tail fin present. Dorsal fin consists of only a number of spines rather than a ray fin, while anal fin is larger and runs for approximately half of the body length, terminating in a trailing point. Pectoral fins are very small and eyes are relatively large. Lateral line runs straight along the full length of the body.

While shortfin spiny eels are not common around the British Isles they can be found the in and around the deep-water areas of the Rockall Trough to the west of Ireland and the Faroe-Shetland Channel to the north of Scotland. They are a deep sea species, occasionally found in depths of 200 metres but generally being found in waters at least 600 to 800 metres deep, and can be found at depths greater than 2000 metres.

Shortfin spiny eels are thought to shoal in large numbers and are believed to feed by swimming with their head pointing downwards allowing them to scavenge and forage as they travel across the seabed. They are thought to feed predominantly on the small invertebrate creatures which are found at great depths such as deep-sea prawns, brittle stars, sea anemones and comb jellies. Although there is not a great deal known about the reproductive cycle of this species spawning is believed to take place in the deep-water areas of the Mediterranean, meaning that at least some of the populations of this species must take part in fairly long migrations. The spiny eel species found in British waters are of no importance to commercial fisheries., although they may be caught as bycatch in commercial deep-sea trawls and discarded at sea. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classes this as a species of Least Concern.

Snubnose Spiny Eel

Snubnose Spiny Eel

  • Scientific name: Notacanthus chemnitzii
  • Size: Up to 30cm
  • UK minimum size: N/a
  • UK shore caught record: N/a
  • IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
  • Distribution: Similar deep-water distribution to the Shortfin Spiny Eel, but much smaller and more restricted population in British waters. Found around Europe, particularly in the Mediterranean. Also found in Canadian and American waters.
  • Feeds on: Mostly small invertebrates and crustaceans.
  • Description: Body is slightly more rounded and deeper than in the Shortfin eel with upturned snout. Similar spiny dorsal fin and larger anal fin, but lateral line is curved over pectoral fins, which are much larger than those of the shortfin. Colour usually greyish to brown.

The other species of spiny eel found in the waters of the British Isles is the snubnose spiny eel, which is distinguished from its shortfin relative by its upturned, pointed snout, smaller mouth and eyes, more rounded body and larger pectoral fins. This species has similar feeding habits and life cycle to the shortfin spiny eel. However, it is less common in British and Irish waters, although on a worldwide basis it may well be more widespread as it is also found in American and Canadian waters, particularly around the Grand Banks and Georges Bank areas. It is of no importance to commercial fisheries and is also classed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN.

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