Helen Lockhart is the Two Oceans Aquarium Communications & Sustainability Manager. 

On Thursday 11 May 2017, Two Oceans Aquarium curatorial staff members Tersia Greenstone, Simon Leigh, Nicholas Nicolle and Bamanye Mpetsheni gently removed our large honeycomb moray eel (Gymnothorax favagineus) from the exhibit in the Indian Ocean Gallery. Lady, as she is affectionately called, has been eating less than what is optimal for her, and so it was decided that a thorough health check was in order.

Lady the honeycomb moray eel. Photo by Dagny Warmerdam 

Lady, who arrived at the Aquarium in 1999 and was a feature of the Aquarium’s first temporary large-scale exhibit Fangs, was first sedated in the exhibit. Once she was calm and sleepy she was transferred into a stretcher and then carried quickly to a holding tank in quarantine.

From left: Dr Brett Gardner, and Two Oceans Aquarium Senior Aquarist Nicholas Nicolle and Animal Health Coordinator Tersia Greenstone. Photo by Bilqis Achmat 

Dr Brett Gardner, a vet based in Gauteng who previously worked at the Johannesburg Zoo, joined us for the morning as our consulting vet, Dr Brandon Spolander, is currently in Italy. We conducted a series of procedures that included X-rays, an ultrasound, an endoscopy and blood tests.

Drawing blood from an eel can be quite a challenge as it is not easy to pierce the tough skin with a needle. Photo by Bilqis Achmat 

Lady was brought into our animal clinic in a net and placed on the examination table in a large container while water was continuously pumped over her gills throughout the examination. This was made possible via a FARS (Fish Anaesthetic Re-breathing System) that Nicholas designed and built for his MSc studies. Nic also made sure her body was kept wet by syringing water over her regularly.

Nic designed and built this FARS (Fish Anaesthetic Re-breathing System) as part of his MSc. Photo by Helen Lockhart 

The first X-ray was taken of her head area to check whether there were any signs of abnormalities or growths around her esophagus. Eels have a second jaw called a pharyngeal jaw that enables them to catch and hold onto their prey, dragging it into the back of their throats. This was the inspiration for the monsters in the Alien series!

When you're standing in awe of an eel's double jaw, that's a moray ... Photo by Bilqis Achmat 

Maneuvering a slippery eel, even while sedated, remained challenging, but the examination was a very interesting experience indeed and was being filmed by the Homebrew Film Company. The ultrasound did not reveal anything significant although Dr Brett did note that Lady’s liver was perhaps a bit smaller than it should be. The scope was used to assess the gills thoroughly and they appeared slightly on the pale side, which could possibly indicate mild anemia due to the presence of parasites, but none were seen during this examination.

Video by Bilqis Achmat

Further X-rays were taken of Lady’s abdominal area and spine. Blood was also drawn – this can be quite a challenge in eels as it is not easy to pierce the tough skin with a needle. The blood was sent to a pathology laboratory for testing.

An X-ray of Lady's spine. Photo by Helen Lockhart 

While nothing conclusive was found during the checkup except a few loose teeth, Dr Brett administered some supportive medication in the form of a Vitamin B complex injection and a Vitamin C shot. Nic and Tersia will follow up with prophylactic treatments with regards to a possible parasite load.

Watching the team in action was amazing. Nic and Tersia were obviously really concerned about Lady yet they worked calmly with Dr Brett, learning from him as he shared information about eels in general and gave them some key animal health tips. Dr Brett was practical yet gentle and worked steadily, appreciating that the animal was under stress and could not be kept out the water for too long.

Photo by Helen Lockhart 

It is always good to know that our staff are here first and foremost for the animals and that we have superb veterinary expertise on call to assist us when we need it.

Lady will remain in quarantine for careful monitoring and treatment. Once she is eating well again she will be moved into the I&J Ocean Exhibit where some neat caves and crevices await her.

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