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American burbot

Lota lota

What do they look like?

Burbot are large fish known to grow to as much as 1.5 m in length and 34 kg in mass (Morrow 1980). These fish are yellow, light tan, or brown with dark brown or black patterning on the body, head and most fins. The underbelly and pectoral fins are pale to white (Cohen et al. 1990; Morrow 1980). The first dorsal fin is short and is followed by a long second dorsal fin at least 6 times the length of the first and joined to a rounded caudal fin (Morrow 1980). Burbot have neither dorsal nor anal spines and have 67 to 96 soft dorsal rays, and 58 to 79 soft anal rays (Cohen et al. 1990). Gill rakers are short, pectoral fins are rounded, and caudal fins have 40 rays (Morrow 1980). Like other cods, burbot are also characterized by a single barbel located on the chin (Morrow 1980). (Cohen, et al., 1990; Morrow, 1980)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    34 (high) kg
    74.89 (high) lb
  • Range length
    152 (high) cm
    59.84 (high) in
  • Range basal metabolic rate
    171.6 (high) cm3.O2/g/hr
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    73.9 cm3.O2/g/hr

Where do they live?

Burbot, Lota lota, are a holarctic species native to the cold fresh waters of the Nearctic and Palearctic regions found between 40 and 70 degrees North latitudes. (Cohen, et al., 1990)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Burbot are demersal fish found in deep temperate lake bottoms and slow moving cold river bottoms between 4 and 18 degrees C (Riede 2004; Cohen et al. 1990). Primarily found at depths ranging from 1 to 700 m, these fish prefer fresh waters but are also found in some brackish water systems (Cohen et al. 1990). These fish often dwell among benthic refugia such as roots, trees, rocks, and dense vegetation (Billard 1997). (Billard, 1997; Cohen, et al., 1990; Morrow, 1980; Riede, 2004; Scott and Crossman, 1973)

  • Range depth
    1 to 700 m
    3.28 to 2296.59 ft

How do they grow?

Burbot eggs hatch in the spring between April and June depending on location (Bjorn 1940; Cohen 1990). Time to hatching is dependent on temperature as well as the particular population and eggs usually take between 30 and 70 days to hatch (MacCrimmon 1959; Bjorn 1940). In four weeks larval burbot increase in length from less than 1 cm to over 2 cm (Ghan and Sprules 1993). Burbot in Lake Superior exhibited very fast growth rates during the first two growing seasons, attaining 42% of total length after 10 growing seasons (Bailey 1972). (Bailey, 1972; Bjorn, 1940; Cohen, et al., 1990; Ghan and Sprules, 1993; MacCrimmon, 1959)

In the Vilyuy River Basin, Siberia, burbot attain sexual maturity in their 7th or 8th year, with males usually maturing 1 year before females (Kirillov 1988). In Lake Superior, burbot as young as one year old were sexually mature (Bailey 1972). Though sexually mature specimens were found for both sexes in year 1 and older age classes, there was a higher proportion of sexually mature males until year 5 when all specimens of both sexes were sexually mature (Bailey 1972). Activity of burbot increases in autumn as energy reserves are concentrated on the growth and development of gonads for the winter spawning season (Kirillov 1988). Maturation of the gonads in both sexes occurs about 4 months after the fall peak in nutritional reserves (Pulliainen and Korhonen 1990). (Bailey, 1972; Kirillov, 1988; Pulliainen and Korhonen, 1990)

How do they reproduce?

Burbot breed once per year in the winter, migrating to shallow water or to a smaller stream to spawn (Cohen 1990). Burbot move to spawning areas individually and males tend to arrive before females (Morrow 1980). Spawning occurs during the night when individuals form a globular mass, each fish pushing toward the center and releasing eggs or sperm (MacCrimmon 1959; Cahn 1936). Postspawning runs upstream have been observed, most likely for feeding (MacCrimmon 1959). (Cahn, 1936; Cohen, et al., 1990; MacCrimmon, 1959; Morrow, 1980)

Burbot are potamodromous, migrating up tributaries or smaller stream reaches to spawn (Cohen 1990). They spawn in winter, laying their eggs in shallow water to hatch during the spring (Kirillov 1988). Fecundity varies geographically from slightly above 100,000 in specimens from Wyoming to over 3 million elsewhere in their range (Bailey 1972). Average fecundity ranges from 700,000 to 800,000 eggs (Kirillov 1988; Bailey 1972). Eggs are yellow, amber, or orange in color, spherical, and rest on the substrate (Koli 1990; Bjorn 1940). Eggs usually hatch in two to four months.

Burbot may take several years to become sexually mature. Present literature indicates a certain proportion of burbot populations fail to mature during each breeding season (Pulliainen and Korhonen 1990). Some studies have also suggested that burbot may take one or two years to restore nutritional reserves after a spawning event (Pulliainen and Korhonen 1990). (Bailey, 1972; Bjorn, 1940; Cohen, et al., 1990; Kirillov, 1988; Koli, 1990; Pulliainen and Korhonen, 1990)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Burbot spawn once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Burbot spawning occurs in the winter between December and March (varies geographically) but lasts no longer than one month for any one population.
  • Range number of offspring
    100000 to 3000000
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range time to hatching
    2 to 4 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 to 8 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 8 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 years

Burbot are broadcast spawners and provide no parental care. Parental investment in burbot is characterized by an increased metabolic activity level and food consumption rates in the fall in order to contribute to the growth and maturation of gonads in both male and females over a four month period preceeding spawning events (Pulliainen and Kohonen 1990; Kirrilov 1988). It has been suggested that burbot may require one to two years to replenish their nurtritional reserves after each spawning event, but no further information on this topic was available (Pulliainen and Kohonen 1990). (Kirillov, 1988; Pulliainen and Korhonen, 1990)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning

How long do they live?

The lifespan of burbot has been known to be as high as 20 years, though studies of natural populations rarely see individuals exceeding 10 to 12 years of age (Cohen 1990; Kirillov 1988; Bailey 1972). Incidence of older and larger individuals in nearctic regions may exceed that of older individuals in palearctic regions due to the absence of an established fishery, sport or otherwise, in North America where one thrives in Eurasia (Kirillov 1988). (Bailey, 1972; Cohen, et al., 1990; Kirillov, 1988)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    20 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    1 to 12 years

How do they behave?

Burbot are opportunistic piscivores with a diverse diet. They hide amongst available refugia in their epibenthic habitat such as rocks and fallen logs, and use ambush tactics to capture prey (Kahilainen and Lehtonen 2003). They are crepuscular or nocturnal and seek shallow water to feed. During times of low activity, they congregate in deep holes (Riede 2004; Morrow 1980; Scott and Crossman 1973). In the winter, these fish migrate upstream and form spawning aggregations (Cohen 1990). (Cohen, et al., 1990; Kahilainen and Lehtonen, 2003; Morrow, 1980; Riede, 2004; Scott and Crossman, 1973)

How do they communicate with each other?

Burbot perceive chemical, tactile, visual, and acoustic stimuli, as do most fish. Though burbot and northern pike exhibit similar hunting strategies, burbot appear to rely less on sight than pike (Kahilainen and Lehtonen 2003). (Kahilainen and Lehtonen, 2003; von der Emde, 2004)

What do they eat?

Newly hatched burbot are completely planktivorous, and remain so even when they are no longer gape limited (Ghan and Sprules 1993). Diet of larval burbot is dominated by rotifer species for the first two weeks. Diet then shifts to slightly larger nauplii, changing further during week four to cycloid copepods, daphnia, and calanoid copepods (Ghan and Sprules 1993). Juveniles have a diet of molluscs and insect larvae (Tolanen et al. 1999). Adult burbot are piscivorous and consume over 99% fish by mass in Lake Superior (Bailey 1972). Though burbot are always a primarily piscivorous fish, their diet changes seasonally and in response to competition. After the winter months, Tolanen et al. (1999) found that burbot ate a much higher proportion of aquatic invertebrates, namely crustaceans in the early summer and oppossum shrimp in the fall. In the Vilyusk resevoir, diet overlap with pike forces burbot to broaden their diet breadth to include more benthic invertebrates (Kirillov 1988). In addition to fish and invertebrates, Bailey (1972) also found rocks, wood chips, plastic, and other inert materials in burbot stomachs, indicating that burbot feeding habits were somewhat indiscriminate. (Bailey, 1972; Ghan and Sprules, 1993; Kirillov, 1988; Tolanen, et al., 1999)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • zooplankton

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Northern pike are known to prey on burbot where the two species coexist (Schwalme 1992). Smelt and yellow perch prey on larval and juvenile individuals (Scott and Crossman 1973). Humans also exert predation pressure on burbot through commercial and sport fisheries (Cohen 1990; Kirillov 1988). In the Great Lakes, the sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus, is also known to prey on burbot (Smith 1971). Burbot rely on their cryptic habits and coloration to avoid predators. (Cohen, et al., 1990; Kirillov, 1988; Schwalme, 1992; Scott and Crossman, 1973; Smith, 1971)

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • cryptic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Burbot are top predators in their ecosystem, sometimes overlapping with similar top predators such as pike or large salmonids (Kirillov 1988). (Kirillov, 1988)

Do they cause problems?

There are no known negative effects of burbot on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Burbot are an important commercial fishery in parts Eurasia where they are used as a source of oil, the flesh is eaten, and liver is sold smoked or canned (Kirillov 1988; Scott and Crossman 1973). Burbot are also processed into fish meal (Scott and Crossman 1973). Because of slow movements and nocturnal habits, little or no sport fishery exists in North America (Cohen 1990). (Cohen, et al., 1990; Kirillov, 1988; Scott and Crossman, 1973)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Are they endangered?

Burbot are near extinction in the Kootnai river in Idaho and British Columbia due to construction of the Libby dam in Idaho. Efforts to bring back the population are ongoing (Kootnai River Fisheries Investigation 2000). Burbot are stocked where commercial fisheries exist in Europe (Kirillov 1988). ("Kootenai River Fisheries Investigation: Stock Status of Burbot", 2000; Kirillov, 1988)


Allison Poor (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Greg Jacobs (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Kevin Wehrly (editor, instructor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Kootenai River Fisheries Investigation: Stock Status of Burbot. 85-65. Boise, Idaho: Idaho Department of Fish and Game. 2000.

Bailey, M. 1972. Age, Growth, Reproduction and Food of the Burbot, Lota lota (Linneaus), in Southwestern Lake Superior. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc., 4: 667-674.

Billard, R. 1997. Les poissons d'eau douce des rivières de France. Identification, inventaire et répartition des 83 espèces. Lausanne: Delachaux & Niestlé.

Bjorn, E. 1940. Preliminary Observations and Experimental Study of the ling, Lota lota (LeSueur), in Wyoming. Trans. Am. Fish. Soc., 69: 192-196.

Cahn, A. 1936. Observations on the Breeding of Lawyer, Lota lota . Copeia, 3: 163-165.

Cohen, D., T. Inada, T. Iwamoto, N. Scialabba. 1990. Gadiform fishes of the world : Order Gadiformes, an annotated and illustrated catalogue. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Ghan, D., W. Sprules. 1993. Diet and Prey Selection in Young Burbot. Journal of Fish Biology, 42: 47-64.

Kahilainen, K., H. Lehtonen. 2003. Piscivory and prey selection of four predator species in a whitefish dominated subarctic lake. Journal of Fish Biology, 63:3: 659-672.

Kirillov, A. 1988. Burbot of Vilyusk Resevoir. Journal of Ichthyology, 28(2): 49-55.

Koli, L. 1990. Fishes of Finland. Helsinki: Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö.

MacCrimmon, H. 1959. Observations on Spawning of Burbot in Lake Simcoe, Ontario. Journal of Wildlife Management, 23(4): 447-449.

Morrow, J. 1980. The Freshwater Fishes of Alaska. University of British Columbia Resource Ecology Library: University of British Columbia.

Nelson, J. 1994. Fishes of the World. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Paragamian, V., V. Whitman, J. Hammond, H. Andrusak. 2000. Collapse of burbot fisheries in the Kootenai River, Idaho, USA, and Kootnay Lake, British Columbia, Canada. Pp. 155-164 in L Vaughn, V Paragamian, D Willis, eds. Burbot: Biology, Ecology, and Management, Vol. Publication No. 1. Spakane, Washington: Fisheries Management Section of the American Fisheries Society.

Pulliainen, E., K. Korhonen. 1990. Seasonal Changes in Condition Indices in Adult Mature and Non-maturing Burbot, Lota lota (L.), in the north-eastern Bothnian Bay, Northern Finland. Journal of Fish Biology, 36(2): 251-259.

Riede, K. 2004. Global register of migratory species - from global to regional scales. Final report of the R&D Projekt 808 05 081. Bonn, Germany: Federal Agency for Nature Conservation.

Schwalme, K. 1992. A Quantitative Comparison Betwen Diet and Body Fatty Acid Composition in Wild Northern Pike (Esox lucius L.). Fish Physiol. Biochem., 10(2): 91-98.

Scott, W., E. Crossman. 1973. Freshwater fishes of Canada. Bull. Fish. Res. Board Can., 184: 1-966.

Smith, B. 1971. Sea Lampreys in the Great Lakes of North America. Pp. 207-248 in M Hardisty, ed. The Biology of Lampreys. London: Academic Press.

Tolanen, A., J. Kjellmann, J. Lappalainen. 1999. Diet Overlap between Burbot and Whitefish in a Subarctic Lake. Ann. Zool. Fennici, 36: 205-214.

Winberg, G. 1960. Rate Metabolism and Food Requirements for Fishes. F Fry, W Ricker, eds. Translation Series No. 194. Biological Station, Naniamo, B.C.: Fisheries Research Board of Canada.

von der Emde, G. 2004. The Senses of Fish: Adaptations for the Reception of Natural Stimuli. Boston: Kluwer.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Jacobs, G. 2006. "Lota lota" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 16, 2024 at

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