Sweden is mourning the death of the world’s oldest eel. Åle the eel was around 155 years old when he died, an impressive age for a European eel which in the wild typically lives around seven years in fresh water before returning to the ocean to spawn and die. They can be very long-lived, though. The oldest recorded wild eel was 85 years old.
Åle was put in the well in the fishing village of Brantevik on the southeastern tip of Sweden by eight-year-old Samuel Nilsson in 1859. This was a common practice in a time when running water was rare. Stockholm only got public water mains in the 1850s and it took more than a century after that for waterworks to be installed in smaller towns. A good eel could keep the home’s water supply free of bugs, worms, eggs, algae and any other number of critters. European eels will even eat carrion, so they’re extremely helpful additions to a well.
This particular eel has been a star for close to a hundred years, reported on in the paper, TV news stories and documentaries, even making an appearance in the Swedish Tom Sawyer, Bombi Bitt and I written by Fritiof Nilsson Piraten in 1932. Thomas Kjellman, current owner of the cottage, remembers Åle from when he was a boy. His family bought the house in 1962 with the understanding that the eel came with the property.
A week ago, Kjellman lifted the lid off the well to show his famous eel to guests when he discovered Åle was no more. They had to drain the well in order to recover the delicate remains which are being kept in the freezer until eel expert Dr. Håkan Wickström comes to pick them up. He will then take them to a laboratory in Stockholm for a necropsy.
Although the body is in pieces, the entire spine is intact and the family is hoping to send along the head as well. Rings in the otolith, or ear stone, of the eel would reveal its exact age.
The Kjellman family will have to take solace in the fact that they have a backup centenarrian eel. Their other well eel, currently unnamed, is only about 110 years old.