Anguilliform larvae collected off North Carolina

  • Ross S
  • Casazza T
  • Quattrini A
 et al. 
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Abstract

The distinctive larval stage of eels (leptocephalus) facilitates dispersal
through prolonged life in the open ocean. Leptocephali are abundant
and diverse off North Carolina, yet data on distributions and biology
are lacking. The water column (from surface to 1,293 m) was sampled
in or near the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Cape
Fear, North Carolina during summer through fall of 1999-2005, and
leptocephali were collected by neuston net, plankton net, Tucker
trawl, and dip net. Additional samples were collected nearly monthly
from a transect across southern Onslow Bay, North Carolina (from
surface to 91 m) from April 2000 to December 2001 by bongo and neuston
nets, Methot frame trawl, and Tucker trawl. Overall, 584 tows were
completed, and 224 of these yielded larval eels. The 1,295 eel leptocephali
collected (combining all methods and areas) represented at least
63 species (nine families). Thirteen species were not known previously
from the area. Dominant families for all areas were Congridae (44%
of individuals, 11 species), Ophichthidae (30% of individuals, 27
species), and Muraenidae (22% of individuals, ten species). Nine
taxa accounted for 70% of the overall leptocephalus catches (in order
of decreasing abundance): Paraconger caudilimbatus (Poey), Gymnothorax
ocellatus Agassiz complex, Ariosoma balearicum (Delaroche), Ophichthus
gomesii (Castelnau), Callechelys muraena Jordan and Evermann, Letharchus
aliculatus McCosker, Rhynchoconger flavus (Goode and Bean), Ophichthus
cruentifer (Goode and Bean), Rhynchoconger gracilior (Ginsburg).
The top three species represented 52% of the total eel larvae collected.
Most leptocephali were collected at night (79%) and at depths > 45
m. Eighty percent of the eels collected in discrete depth Tucker
trawls at night ranged from mean depths of 59-353 m. A substantial
number (38% of discrete depth sample total) of larval eels were also
collected at the surface (neuston net) at night. Daytime leptocephalus
distributions were less clear partly due to low catches and lower
Tucker trawl sampling effort. While net avoidance may account for
some of the low daytime catches, an alternative explanation is that
many species of larval eels occur during the day at depths > 350
m. Larvae of 21 taxa of typically shallow water eels were collected
at depths > 350 m, but additional discrete depth diel sampling is
needed to resolve leptocephalus vertical distributions. The North
Carolina adult eel fauna (estuary to at least 2,000 m) consists of
51 species, 41% of which were represented in these collections. Many
species of leptocephali collected are not yet known to have juveniles
or adults established in the South Atlantic Bight or north of Cape
Hatteras. Despite Gulf Stream transport and a prolonged larval stage,
many of these eel leptocephali may not contribute to their respective
populations.

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