Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica) larvae have amazing buoyancy compared to other oceanic plankton, and the reason may be a type of gelatinous goo contained within the body.

When researchers from the University of Tokyo measured the specific gravity of Japanese eel larvae, they found it to be as low as 1.019, rising to 1.043 – showing the larvae to be potentially lighter than seawater itself. (Sea water has an average specific gravity of 1.024.)

When they checked other marine creatures for comparison, such as juvenile jellyfish and the sea snail Hydromyles, their specific gravity turned out range from 1.020 to 1.425. Of 26 plankton creatures tested, the Japanese eel larva was the lightest.

The food consumed by Japanese eel larvae and many other planktons tend to be found in the greatest abundance really close to the water’s surface where there is plenty of light. The low specific gravity may therefore increase the survival rate of Japanese eels by making it easier for them to find a lot of things to eat.

So, why does the Japanese eel float so well? According the Japanese study, the answer may rest in gelatinous goo – or more specifically in a matrix of transparent gelatinous glycosamino-glycans. Controlled by osmoregulation through the chloride cells that cover the body of a Japanese eel larva, this marvellous adaptation makes it possible for the larva to stay close to the surface. Researchers have also suggested that it might help the larva to stay away from predators.

For more information, see the paper: Tsukamoto K, Yamada Y, Okamura A, Kaneko T, Tanaka H, Miller MJ, Horie N, Mikawa N, Utoh, T and S Tanaka (2009) – Positive buoyancy in eel leptocephali: an adaptation for life in the ocean surface layer. Marine Biology, vol. 156, no. 5. pp. 835-846.