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Morays are Kind of a Big Eel

Whether you’ve seen one while scuba diving or while watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid, you can probably identify an eel when you see it. But did you know there are lots of different types of eel? Eels are elongated fish found in the order Anguilliformes, which contains 19 families and hundreds of species.

Today we’re diving into one of the more well-known types of eel: the moray. We hope that by the end you’ll be f-eel-ing great about your new-found moray knowledge.

What are moray eels?

A moray is a type of eel found in the family Muraenidae. There are about 200 recognized species within the family, with new species being discovered today. In fact, a 2020 study described a new species of undulated moray called Gymnothorax elaineheemstrae, which was previously thought to be grouped together with another species.

Morays are found in tropical and subtropical zones and like to hide in the crevices of coral reefs or rock piles. Almost all species spend all their time in ocean habitats, but some will venture into brackish or freshwater.

What do moray eels look like?

Morays are recognizable by their long bodies that are laterally compressed, meaning their sides are flattened (similar to the sides of other fish you might find on the reef, like butterflyfish). The smallest species are less than a foot long, while the largest species—the giant moray—can grow to almost 10 feet.

Moray eels can come in a range of colors, from dark green (popularized by the sneaky characters Flotsam and Jetsam) to bright yellow and orange. The leopard moray, found in the Indo-Pacific region, has vibrant orange and brown stripes and spots that rival any other colorful fish on the reef. Similarly, the spotted moray, which is a staple in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Atlantic, has striking black and brown spots on its cream-colored body.

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© Klaus Stiefel / Flickr

What do moray eels eat?

Moray eels are fierce predators and occasional scavengers. Let’s just say you do not want to be staring down the mouth of a moray. They have powerful teeth that help them rip apart their prey: some species have long, sharp teeth that are great for fish and cephalopods, others have duller, wider teeth that are perfect for crushing crustacean shells.

But wait, there’s more! As if one set of teeth isn’t enough, moray eels have a second set of jaws nestled in the back of their throats. These jaws, also known as pharyngeal jaws, latch onto the prey after it’s caught in the larger jaws, and pull it back towards the eel’s esophagus. It’s an adaptation straight out of an Alien movie.

Often, divers can get a great view of moray teeth (from a distance, of course). They can be seen sticking their head out of their hiding holes with their mouth wide open. Although this can look threatening, they rarely bother divers—unless they’re bothered first. As with all underwater creatures, it’s best to keep your distance and admire from afar.

There you have it—hope you’ve had an eel of a good time learning fun facts about moray eels. Now go forth and share your Muraenidae knowledge with the world!

Can’t get enough eels? Learn about the difference between true eels and electric eels, or read about the weird and wonderful deep-sea gulper eel.

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© JASON WASHINGTON / CORAL REEF IMAGE BANK

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