Past distributions of the European freshwater eel from archaeological and palaeontological evidence

A. J. Kettle, D. Heinrich, J. H. Barrett, Norbert Benecke, Alison M. Locker

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29 Citations (Scopus)


The spatial distribution of the European freshwater eel (Anguilla anguilla) was very different in historic and prehistoric times in comparison to the present. A database of the spatial and temporal distribution of eel remains in archaeological and palaeontological sites is presented and used to assess the spatial distribution of populations from the height of the last glacial maximum. The results show that the eel was absent from northern Europe until about 11 000 years ago. The reason was probably a southerly displacement of the Gulf Stream carrying the larval migration from the Sargasso Sea. However, additional factors preventing eel populations in northern Europe may have also been the colder temperatures in the Arctic tundra landscape that existed at the time and the extreme distance to the European Atlantic coast along the Channel River. The archaeological record shows that eels were absent from the Baltic Sea until about 6700 cal BC, but there is some indication of an earlier presence during the Yoldia Sea stage at the beginning of the Holocene. Only in southern Europe south of the Gironde river basin were eel populations maintained through the last glaciation. The species may have survived the last glaciation in a relatively restricted area in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast of western Europe. Published palaeontological and genetic information gives important insights into climatic, geologic, and tectonic events on longer time scales. The oldest subfossil remains from Pleistocene sediments in northern Europe are approaching the age of the estimated genetic divergence of the European and American eel populations, and hence the species identity of the oldest subfossil remains may be ambiguous.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1309-1334
Number of pages26
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Issue number13-14
Early online date15 May 2008
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2008

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