The 9-eyed rock suckers of Shiloh Battlefield

Shiloh Battlefield in southern Tennessee has numerous trails ranging from about 2 miles to more than 20.  They have trails with different themes – historical hikes, nature hikes, compass hikes. 

Recently we took our local Scouts to Shiloh and we did several of these hikes. On the fifth day of our adventures at Shiloh, we embarked on a compass hike tracing a meandering set of headings and waypoints through the nearly-6 square miles of woods and fields.

Much of Shiloh is relatively flat, but it is cut here and there by creek ravines including Dill Branch, Shiloh Branch, and Spain Branch.  In these parts of the park, the terrain can become suddenly challenging.

Early in the afternoon, we found ourselves clambering down Dill Branch ravine and discovered that despite the overall flat or rolling nature of the park, this particular ravine is severe.  Dill Branch ravine is much steeper than Clark Creek in southwest Mississippi, which is pretty much the standard for elevation change around here.

You could probably do it standing if you are athletic or have a couple of hiking poles, but it would actually probably be easier in places to put your hands down and do it as a scramble.  I was starting to have flashbacks to Kilimanjaro. Thankfully, Dill Branch ravine does not last for days at a time like Kili!

I was at the rear of the group, sweeping up stragglers and encouraging them onward when we came to the bottom of the ravine and found a beautiful, crystal-clear, pebble-lined brook. Normally, I would have hopped over the creek and continued my scramble up the other side to keep up with the group, but 3-4 of the other hikers had stopped at the bottom and were pointing and looking at something in the water.

When I caught up to them, they pointed out a mass of writhing shapes in the water.  It looked like a clot of snakes flowing and wriggling under the water. Another couple of hikers had found another knot of these things upstream a few yards.

I asked another adult leader, “What are those things?” He shrugged and since neither of us had ever seen them, we guessed they must be some sort of eels.

I have a great plant and animal identification app on my phone called iNaturalist.  You can take a photo of something and upload it and the expert systems will attempt to identify it.  The best thing about iNaturalist is that if the AI cannot make a positive identification, it will forward the photo to thousands of experts all over the world, asking for a human to ID it.

I didn’t have any cell service to make the upload, but I took several photos and later, after we got back to civilization, uploaded them with the label, “Freshwater eels.”

The automated system couldn’t tell the creatures apart from snakes, and offered several suggestions, but it was less than a day before the human experts started chiming in, “Those aren’t eels. Those are lampreys.”

This was an education to me – I’d always thought lampreys were a kind of eel and I didn’t know either one lived in freshwater.  The only eel I’ve ever seen outside of a video or an aquarium was on a deep sea fishing trip when I was a teen. It turns out that there are species of both that can live in either fresh or saltwater.

The expert that identified them as lampreys couldn’t make a positive ID as to the particular species, so I started researching lampreys that live in the Tennessee river basin and found that one of the most common is the Mountain Brook lamprey, which looks like a likely fit.

Lampreys are fascinating creatures.  Notice in the right-most individual you can see the sucker mouth, the row of gill pores along its side, and the dorsal and caudal fins.

These gill pores along the sides are distinctive of lampreys, and have even led to them being called nine-eyed eels (seven pores, an eye, and a nostril all in a row).

Like me, you might remember from High School biology books or nature documentaries that lampreys are horrific bloodsucking parasites – and some are, but these tiny freshwater lampreys are not parasitic.  In fact, the adults do not even eat at all. They survive their entire adult lives off of fat stored while they were in their juvenile stage! The evil-looking sucker mouth is only used to attach to rocks to hold themselves in place for nesting or mating – apparently, that is what these knots of individuals were up to in the bottom of Dill Branch.

That’s even where they got their name – the word lamprey appears to derive from the Latin words, lambere (to lick) and petra (rocks).  So in addition to getting some good exercise and a Civil War history lesson, we got to see the nine-eyed rock suckers of Shiloh Battlefield!

Originally published in the Enterprise-Journal Newspaper

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