By Patrik Svensson
I didn’t know a lot about eels when I picked this book up, and neither do most people. They’re very mysterious creatures, it turns out. Though they have been studied for thousands of years, and have been very important to many cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, many details of their life are still unknown.
First of all, no one is quite sure how eels mate. Aristotle believed that eels formed spontaneously from the mud at the bottom of ponds or rivers, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists clearly identified female eels or eel eggs. Males were not identified until the 20th century.
Eels have a complex lifestyle that spans thousands of miles, and decades, if not over a century. Eels hatch in the Sargasso Sea, and make their way to the waterways of North American and Europe, going through several metamorphoses on the way. Eventually, eels settle down in the mud at the bottom of lakes, ponds, and rivers where they wait, sometimes for decades, before their final transformation to sexual maturity. No one knows what triggers this final change, or how they instinctively know how to return to the Sargasso Sea from whence they came.
It’s not certain how long an eel can live. They can survive outside of water for a surprisingly long time, even slithering across land to find a suitable pond or lake. Many live for decades, and there is evidence that some may even live to be older than one hundred years old or more. The tale is told of an eel placed in a Swedish well by a boy in the 1850s. While no one knows for sure exactly when, townsfolk visited the eel for generations before it finally died at the beginning of the 21st century.
But perhaps the most important mystery of the eel is its disappearing trick. Eel populations are plummeting, and scientists don’t understand why. Populations are down in North America and Europe. Now scientists are racing to understand the mysteries of the eel before they are lost forever.
The Book of Eels embraces the mysteries of the eel, which have come to embody the mysteries of life and death for the author, Patrik Svensson. The book is both scientific, and deeply personal, alternating between discussions of the biology and discovery of eels and personal stories of the author’s youth eel fishing with his father. While the lowly eel may be looked down upon by many for its slimy body and beady eyes, Svensson’s book illuminates a fascinating and beautiful animal, and illustrates its importance for humans, and the world at large.
Book Review by Nathan Robison, Librarian