Class Petromyzontida: Lampreys


The photo shows leech-like sea lampreys latched onto a large fish.  The sea lampreys have a long, smooth, slender body.
Lamprey. These parasitic sea lampreys, Petromyzon marinus, attach by suction to their lake trout host, and use their rough tongues to rasp away flesh in order to feed on the trout’s blood. (credit: USGS)

OpenStax Biology 2e

The class Petromyzontida includes approximately 40 species of lampreys, which are superficially similar to hagfishes in size and shape. However, lampreys possess extrinsic eye muscles, at least two semicircular canals, and a true cerebellum, as well as simple vertebral elements, called arcualia—cartilaginous structures arranged above the notochord. These features are also shared with the gnathostomes—vertebrates with jawed mouths and paired appendages (see below). Lampreys also have a dorsal tubular nerve cord with a well-differentiated brain, a small cerebellum, and 10 pairs of nerves. The classification of lampreys is still debated, but they clearly represent one of the oldest divergences of the vertebrate lineage. Lampreys lack paired appendages, as do the hagfishes, although they have one or two fleshy dorsal fins. As adults, lampreys are characterized by a rasping tongue within a toothed, funnel-like sucking mouth. Many species have a parasitic stage of their life cycle during which they are fish ectoparasites (some call them predators because they attack and eventually fall off).

Lampreys live primarily in coastal and freshwater environments, and have a worldwide distribution, except for the tropics and polar regions. Some species are marine, but all species spawn in fresh water. Interestingly, northern lampreys in the family Petromyzontidae, have the highest number of chromosomes (164 to 174) among the vertebrates. Eggs are fertilized externally, and the larvae (called ammocoetes) differ greatly from the adult form, closely resembling the adult cephalocordate amphioxus. After spending three to 15 years as suspension feeders in rivers and streams, they attain sexual maturity. Shortly afterward, the adults swim upstream, reproduce, and die within days.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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