Salmon Life Cycle Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Kristina Washington-Morris

Kristina has taught a variety of elementary classes and has a master's degree in elementary education.

Have you ever tried to run against the wind or had to hide from someone bigger? Salmon experience similar challenges during their lives, too. This lesson describes the stages and struggles of the salmon life cycle.

So Many Changes

What if you could replace your lungs with gills and live underwater instead of on land? Well, salmon can do something like this. While most fish can live in only saltwater or freshwater, salmon can actually change their internal organs so they can survive in both environments.

A salmon can't make this change overnight, though. Its life covers seven different stages over 2 to 7 years (humans have about 5 stages over 75 years). In each stage, salmon look and behave differently. Let's explore this.

Stage One: Eggs

Salmon begin their lives as small round orange eggs in freshwater rivers. The eggs are usually hidden under small rocks for protection.

Stage Two: Alevins

After several months, eggs hatch into tiny salmon called alevins. Because they are easily hurt or eaten, alevins hide under the gravel to keep safe. They feed from a yolk sac attached to their bodies. A yolk sac is like having a full lunch box tied to your leg.

Salmon eggs and alevins
salmon eggs

The Third Stage: Fry

After 4 - 6 weeks, alevins finish their yolk sac and enter the fry stage. They're still tiny - only about the size of a marker cap! Fry leave their home under the gravel and start eating microscopic (tiny) creatures.

The Fourth Stage: Parr

At a year old, salmon enter the parr stage and live in freshwater rivers for 1 - 5 years. They eat insects and grow to about the length of a crayon.

Salmon parr
salmon parr

The Fifth Stage: Smolt

The salmon grows into a smolt 4.5 - 9.5 inches long and ready for a springtime transformation, or change. Smolt swim downstream to where the river meets the ocean. Here is a mixture of freshwater and saltwater.

The smolt's internal organs chemically transform. It can now osmoregulate, or control the amount of salt and water in its body so that it can swim in the saltwater ocean.

The Sixth Stage: Adult

As adults, salmon live in saltwater seas and oceans. They swim hundreds of miles, eating smaller fish and gaining weight. After several years, between April and November, they return home to the freshwater river where they were born. It's a tough journey because the salmon has to swim upstream, against the direction the water is moving. They often have to climb up and over waterfalls or dams in the way.

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