Unusual Creatures: A closer look at misunderstood Moray Eels
By: Ashley Gustafson
When any given person thinks of a Moray eel, more than likely they think of two common misconceptions: one they are related to snakes and two,they are frenzied predators that attack anything or anyone that gets too close. While this may be the image movies, media, and literature paints of the Moray eel, it is not the case. Moray eels are a type of true eel meaning they are elongated bony fish with a long slim body design, one of the reasons they are often mistaken for sea serpents. Even though they look like a snake Moray eels are more closely related to fish. There are over 200 different species of Morays in the world that all vary in size, color, and location.
These unusual sea creatures vary greatly in appearance depending species. Moray eels can grow up to 13 feet long and can weigh up to 80 pounds. They have a very long body and snout. Morays also have two sets of jaws and teeth. One of these sets is visible and very sharp, the second set is in their throat and allows them to break up and digest food they have caught. This fact is completely unique to Moray eel species and makes them one unusual fish. It is a great interest to scientists and an opportune area for research. Morays vary greatly in coloration from black to brown to gray to green or combinations of all of the above. They also can have markings such as stripes or spots or combinations of the two.
Moray Eels are generally fast swimmers that expend little energy to do so. Unlike other fish, Moray eels move in a snake-like, serpentine motion. Also, they are covered in slimy mucus that allows them to swim very quickly around coral and rocks in their habitats without getting scratched. Moray eels live in both freshwater and saltwater environments depending on the species. They tend to live in estuaries or areas where fresh and salt water meet each other. In most cases they prefer moving waters over calm ones. They thrive in shallow tropical waters where there are plenty of crevices to hide around reef and coral.
As their bad reputation suggests, Moray eels are predators. Since Morays have poor eyesight they rely heavily on their excellent sense of smell. They are nocturnal ambush predators meaning that they blend in with their surroundings or hide until prey approaches. Once prey approaches, the Moray eel will smell the prey and strike with their strong, sharp teeth that immediately tear and consume prey upon capture. Therefore, Moray eels don’t actively hunt but hunt passively or through ambush. Prey items for these unusual sea creatures include fish, crustaceans, octopus, and squid. While Morays have a bad rap for being overly aggressive, they prefer to flea rather than stay and fight; they normally only attack in cases of self-defense and distress.
Unlike many animals, Moray eels have no set mating season. They tend to reproduce any time resources like food and burrows are available and plentiful. There also seems to be a correlation with warmer water temperatures and mating. As previously stated Moray eels are true eels, and like all true eels they are oviparous. Oviparous simply means that they lay eggs. Moray eggs hatch about 30-45 days after being laid. When Moray eels first hatch, they are completely independent and are born with all the instincts they need to survive. While many Moray eels hatch, very few of them survive to maturity which is about 3 years of age. The reason young Moray eels don’t often survive is the vast amount of predators they have when they are young.
Moray eels are often a concern to divers. They are extremely interesting creatures that divers can encounter around popular dive sites like coral reefs. One myth about Moray eels is that they are blindly aggressive. Many incidents have occurred with divers and Morays for simple reasons that don’t stem from random aggression. One, Moray eels have poor vision and can mistake divers that get too close or try to feed them. Two, Morays are defensive so when divers get too close they can feel threatened and lash out. Another reason for their bad reputation comes from the fact they have to open and close their mouth to continually flush water over their gills to breathe. While this behavior looks threatening since they have large sharp teeth and are constantly moving around.
Moray eels are fascinating, unique, and unusual sea creatures that because of their serpent-like appearance and fierce predatory ability, they have gotten a bad reputation. With a broad scope of different species and one-of-a-kind qualities, Morays are an important component in coral reef ecosystems and marine life research.