Kreature Feature started off as an educational presentation at our monthly general staff meetings here at the Two Oceans Aquarium. Now in its fourth month and increasingly popular among Aquarium staff, we decided it’s only right to extend the knowledge and fun to our readers here on our website. Every month PA to Head of Education Katja Rockstroh presents a different animal that we have here at the Aquarium and tells our colleagues more about it. Usually she uncovers some rather interesting facts about the various animals she researches. She also makes sure to entertain her co-workers …

My earliest memory of eels is of Flotsam and Jetsam in The Little Mermaid. They were not very nice eels, which leaves me wondering whether there are lots of people out there that do not like eels very much? The fact that they look like snakes doesn’t help.

For my research I googled “eels” and the animal was only the third search result. The first is a regional rugby team from Australia called the Parramatta Eels (Est. 1942), the second a band simply called Eels with a man as the lead singer, leaving the remaining members in obscurity.

Eels the animals turn out to belong to a very diverse group, with a rather taxing and complicated taxonomy.

At the Two Oceans Aquarium, the question often comes up whether our eels are electric. The answer is no, and in fact an electric eel is not an eel at all. And does not occur in the marine environment.

Electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) taken at the New England Aquarium (December 2006). Copyright © 2006 Steven G. Johnson and donated to Wikipedia under GFDL and CC-by-SA.
 

Because of their looks, I can understand why they are called what they are, but they are in fact from the catfish family. So not a “true eel”. True eels are in fact fish (not aquatic snakes) and can be found in both freshwater and marine environments.

There are a total of 800 eel species worldwide, and some are better known than others.

That’s a moray

The ones that I will talk about are our Aquarium eels, which fall under the group commonly called moray eels. Creepily, moray eels are distantly related to the crazy-looking pelican eel from the deep sea. So if you want to see a slightly terrifying deep sea eel, google “pelican eel”.

Moray eels come in various sizes and colours. They are found all over the world, which makes them a cosmopolitan species. And by that I do not mean the stylish, cityslicker kind of cosmopolitan, but the opposite of endemic. If an organism is endemic, they are only found in a certain part of the world. In easier terms, moray eels are everywhere.

The title of Smallest Moray Eel goes to the Snyder’s moray, reaching a maximum length of only 11.5cm. They are not well researched (probably because they are hard to find, since they are tiny).

Snyder's moray eel. Photo by jurveston/Flickr, shared under CC BY 2.0

The longest moray eel is the giant slender eel, which can grow up to 4 metres long.

From The Fishes of the Indo-Australian Archipelago (public domain

The heaviest moray eel, the giant eel, can weigh up to a hefty 30kg.

The giant eel. Photo by Nick Hobgood shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

The scariest looking (and this is completely my personal opinion) must be the viper moray eel. With a face that only a mother could love, this eel is not improving the eel image one bit. 

Photo by Peter Liu/Flickr, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Moray eels specifically seem to have been the inspiration for a certain movie with aliens and predators. The aliens in these movies happen to have a second jaw that comes out of their mouth. Since this is not a terrifying enough thought in a fictional movie, the fact that this is a reality in an actual animal makes it so much worse.

Moray eels have something called a pharyngeal jaw.

 

Yes, that’s right. Two jaws.

The pharyngeal jaw sits far back in the mouth, close to the pharynx, and is used to snatch and drag prey to the back of the throat.

Here is how that works:

  

Who’d have thought?

We have four species of moray eel in the Aquarium and they can all be seen in the Indian Ocean Gallery. They are the very large honeycomb moray eel, the beautifully patterned geometric moray eel, the aptly named zebra eel and the very similar looking tiger reef eel.

The honeycomb moray eel at the Two Oceans Aquarium

We do also have another eel, which is not a moray eel at all, but belongs to the snake eel family. It lives just next door to the morays – see if you can find it during your next visit.

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