Colonisation of freshwater habitats by the European eel Anguilla anguilla

Anton Ibbotson*, Jim Smith, Peter Scarlett, Miran Aprhamian

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


1. The spatial distribution of European eels in 18 U.K. rivers was related to distance from tidal limit using a negative exponential model. This function accounted for between 19 and 90% of the variation in eel density where quantitative data was available. For semiquantitative data the negative exponential function was a significant predictor of eel densities in only six out of 10 cases, although all rivers showed a consistent decline in abundance with distance upstream from the tidal limit. 

2. The spatial distribution of different age groups of European eel in River Severn showed an initial rapid dispersion into freshwater followed by a much slower dispersion rate. Movement of the population upstream by a wave-form migration process does not occur in this system. Instead colonisation of freshwaters can be seen as a two-phase dispersion. Phase-1 is a rapid dispersion upstream driven by density at the point source. Phase-2 commences once the eels become yellow eels and is equivalent to random diffusion of particles. 

3. These processes have important implications for the penetration of freshwaters with reduced numbers of eel larvae arriving on the coast of Europe and North America. Eel abundance will decrease more in freshwaters in an upstream direction whilst it may remain stable or decrease to a lesser extent in estuaries. They are also able to explain the demography of eels migrating upstream over weirs and the observations of varying sex ratios within catchments. We conclude that a dispersion model dependent on age, temperature, difficulty of migration, habitat quality and density of eels should be an important part of freshwater eel management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1696-1706
Number of pages11
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number9
Early online date21 Aug 2002
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2002


  • catadromy
  • colonisation
  • dispersion
  • migration
  • yellow eel


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