Date of this Version
17 February 2006 / Accepted: 18 May 2006 / Published online: 12 July 2006 Springer-Verlag 2006
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.