THE BOOK OF EELS by Patrick Svensson


This fascinating book was on my list for months and I finally made time for it. I had expected mostly natural history and discussion of eel biology but this book is so much more. Memoir. Philosophy. Praise of those who brought the science forward.

For thousands of years eels, in their various stages of development, were thought to be four distinct species. This is because they undergo startling metamorphosis across their life cycle. It is only within the last 100 years or so that researchers have been able to find conclusive evidence re their biology. Born in the western Atlantic, they begin their eastward journey as tiny, leaf shaped creatures, drifting along in the current. By the time they reach Europe they have morphed into glass eels and begin their migration up rivers and streams, some migrating many miles inland. Most of their adult life is spent in slow moving fresh water as yellow eels. Then, at some point, triggered by who knows what, they turn and head back the way they came, back to the ocean. Some are 7 or 8 when they do this, some may be as old as 50. What spurs this is a mystery, but they begin their final metamorphosis as they turn to navigate back to the sea.

The book lagged for me about half way through and I almost put it down to pick up something else. I am so glad I didn’t because the last third is where it begins to get more philosophical and I really enjoyed this aspect of the writing. It is really quite a lovely book and very readable.

7 comments on “THE BOOK OF EELS by Patrick Svensson”

  1. When I read the title of this book I couldn’t help but think of the Book of Kells, Julie. Something completely different. 🙂 I love migration of all sorts, so thanks for spelling it out in your commentary. Do the yellow eels become something else when they ship off to sea at the end of their lives? How far across the ocean do they generally get before they meet their end? It’s OK if you just want to tell me to read the book.

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    1. I will happily tell you to read the book. But I will also happily tell you that the yellow eels become silver eels as they ship off to sea. This is the stage when they develop sexual organs. Researchers struggled for years to find an eel with said organs – this was one of the many mysteries about their biology. Sigmund Freud even got in on the search, spending time in Italy as a young medical student, catching and disecting in the hunt for the elusive eel testicle.

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    2. Oh, and they travel thousands of miles – 3.000 to 6,000 + – to reach their breeding grounds. As you can imagine, many do not make it. And like so many species that have the misfortune to share a planet with big brained homo sapiens, they are critically endangered.

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  2. Gotta love a creature who keeps his sexual organs close to the vest. Thanks for answering my questions, JNaz. I am charmed.

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  3. A lovely book review about magical creatures. The mysterious life cycle of eels contributing to the philosophical musings of humans–and I have never given them much thought. Your reflections made me think about the sacred as well as the practical reasons we must work to save the integrity of the planet. Thank you.

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