How Prehistoric Fish Taught Me Life Lessons

On “finding yourself” in a cold, wet, muddy boat.

It’s an old tale which I think most people will be familiar with: last summer, finding myself low in funds but high in dreams, I looked for a financial opportunity. I passed over bar work, restaurant staff, and babysitting— I’d done my time in those areas and wanted something a bit more novel.

One website advertised a position as an assistant fieldwork associate, catching lampreys out on the local river, the Ouse. (Pronounced “ooze.” This should have been a warning.)

It turned out the government was doing some work rehabilitating these wonderful creatures after putting them in danger by renovating parts of the river, and wanted to see how well they’d been doing. By trapping them mid-migration, we’d be able to do a tally and check out their numbers. I was intrigued: I applied and was accepted for five sessions of lamprey trapping on a boat with my new boss, Damian.

And that’s that we did: we trapped, we counted, we marked, and we released back to the river.

What is a lamprey?

Now, for those of you who don’t know, the lamprey is the world’s oldest vertebrate. This is what makes them so cool — the species is considered an ancient lineage, and they were one of the very first species to develop a vertebrae, or backbone. They look mostly like eels, except they don’t have a jaw. So imagine long tubes with a mouth.

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

They’re really fascinating animals (in theory). They don’t actually have bones, so their skeletons are made of only cartilage. No pelvis or pectoral fins like in other fish which would evolve into limbs. Aside from being mildly endangered, they give us interesting clues into our own evolutionary beginnings. At some point, many hundreds of millions of years ago, we shared a common, slimy, watery ancestor.

Unfortunately for them, they also look like creatures from beyond the abyss. Like a nightmare vortex of sharp teeth. Because they’re such an ancient lineage, they don’t have a jaw. That means their bodies are essentially just a tube with a never-ending spiral of fang at the end, which they suction onto unsuspecting prey to drain their blood.

Drow male via Wikipedia

Not so bad for the river lampreys, which are only about 12–14 inches long. They only look like toothy worms.

But the lampreys we were looking for? Sea lampreys. Up to a meter long, big enough that I couldn’t close my hand around them. A literal tube of muscle.

Often, they’d been trapped for days, so by the time we brought them out onto the surface, they were furious. Damian and I would have to get quite literally wrestle three feet of pure, cylindrical, angry muscle out of the trap and into a transparent container filled with water, on a very rickety boat.

Lampreys ooze (see, I told you) a protective coat of slime to make it harder for predators to latch on, so it was not only a very powerful angry tube, they were incredibly difficult to hold onto, throwing themselves into knots and flinging themselves everywhere. Normally a trap would hold just the one,which was hard enough to manoeuvre into the boat without dropping it, but on occasion we’d find two — once, we found five in the same trap.

Of course, once we did manage to get them into their temporary homes, they’d then latch onto the side of the container with their sucker-mouths, showing off their hypnotic spiral of teeth.

They were hideous and disgusting. Despite myself, I kind of liked them.

They taught me to enjoy myself no matter what.

On a boat with a guy I barely knew, phone miles away, cold, wet, hungry and frequently festooned with ribbons of lamprey slime, I had a lot of fun.

Damian and I didn’t talk much — the boat motor was often too loud to speak, and I was too bundled up under three scarves, hats, and ear warmers to hear much of anything, either.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash. Rare image of me, also.

I’ve always been a little afraid of physical discomfort and tedium — afraid that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself if I were ever anything less than comfortable, or worried that if I didn’t have instant entertainment, I’d die of boredom. I’ve cancelled events because of the weather, and I always have some form of diversion — whether digital or print — with me in case of distraction.

But even when I was freezing cold and exhausted because we’d had to get up to catch lampreys at the crack of dawn, I was never bored. Even when we spent hours in the gloomy silence before daybreak, when my fingers were ripped from hauling up soggy rope, even when the water got into my galoshes and I lost the ability to feel my toes, I learned to accept it and enjoy myself.

After all, I was trapped on the boat. I couldn’t go in early. I couldn’t cancel. All I could do was try to enjoy myself no matter what. And I found that when I freed myself from the worry, when I just accepted, yes, I would be damp and chilly and possibly in pain, and there would be long stretches of time when there would be nothing to do interspersed with frantic, lamprey-filled moments, I wasn’t afraid of them any more.

My mind would drift, thinking up story ideas, making to-do lists, or even just thinking of nothing at all. I absorbed bird calls, and even spotted seals and a single rare porpoise.

Boredom and physical discomfort lost their power over me.

Lampreys reminded me to go all in.

Seems like a complex lesson to learn from creatures which have about two brain cells to rub together, but honestly, they did.

I’d never done anything like lamprey trapping before. I’d never been out on this river. I’d never tried wrangling angry animals into or out of cages for governmental research purposes.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

And even though I’d never tried it, despite never having numbered those among my skills, I was good at it. Part of the reason was because I didn’t hold back.

If it looked like a lamprey might be getting away, I would thrust both hands into the silt-laden, freezing Ouse to recapture it. If one looked like it was going to try to latch onto another in their container, I reached in and pulled it off, never pausing to think that it could easily turn to latch onto me. I couldn’t take a minute to think things through — I couldn’t hesitate. I had to act.

Success comes to those who reach out and take it. In this case, success was grabbing a lamprey before it got away from me. But I still took the lesson to heart. I’m a perfectionist, prone to over-thinking, procrastinating and doubting myself. With lampreys, there wasn’t time or space for any of that.

Finally, they made me remember my muddier roots.

If you were to look at me from afar, you’d peg me as what the kids used to call a girly-girl. I trend towards the whimsical both in style and attitude. I like pink. I’m a big fan of ribbons and shiny things.

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Pictured: me (right) wearing a flower crown and a lacy dress.

This wasn’t always the case — when I was younger, I dug my bare feet into the mud, I was unafraid of grass stains, and I could outrun anyone. I’d mostly forgotten that, over the years — at some point I’d decided the world valued me more if I looked pretty. I let boys do the heavy lifting because they liked me more when I did.

And as it turns out, on a mucky, wet, cold boat, there’s not much use for pretty. There is, however, use for hauling up heavy, water-logged cages filled with pounds of writhing masses of furious, slimy flesh.

There’s use for holding onto the angry ropes of muscle, for shoving them into their containers with no hesitation. There’s use for plunging your hand into murky water to grab something that’s a blood-sucking nightmare, and holding on tight enough that it can’t escape you.

Pictured: me (right) holding a sticky ball of mud.

If that had been on the job description, I would not have applied. However, in the thick of it, face splattered with mud and lamprey slime, fingers numb from the cold, death-worm tightly clutched in my hands… I loved it.

It reminded me that not so long ago, I wasn’t afraid to throw myself in headfirst, unafraid of consequences. It reminded me that there’s value in doing things without worrying about how I looked, which for me was a huge leap. Those lampreys, powerful and intimidating though they were, were less powerful and intimidating than me.

It was good to be reminded.

MSc by Research. Psychology nerd. She/her. zuliewrites.com

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