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What is a Moray Eel?

By S. Ashraf
Updated May 17, 2024
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The moray eel is a fish that belongs to the family Muraenidae. There are more than 100 species of moray eels, so a great diversity exists among them in size, skin and coloration. Their size ranges from about 4.5 inches (11.5 cm) to 13 feet (4 m) in length with skin that might be speckled, striped or look as though it is tattooed. These eels exist in a spectrum of vivid colors from white through black. All moray eels share the characteristics of lacking both scales and fins, other than one dorsal fin that runs along the length of its body and gives it a snakelike appearance.

Moray eels are found throughout the world. These types of eels are mainly reef fish that live in subtropical and tropical seas. Mostly, they prefer living in a marine environment in the shallow waters surrounding rocky areas or coral reefs where they like to hide in crevices and alcoves, but some of the species live at depths of several hundred feet or meters. Saltwater is their main habitat, but several moray eel species can be found in temperate seas as well as in brackish water and estuaries. A few species are able to live in freshwater.

These eels spend much of their time hiding and come out only at night, when they need to feed. The moray eel is a carnivore whose diet includes other eels, fish, mollusks, crustaceans and cephalopods. Although its hunting is hampered by bad eyesight, it has a very sharp sense of smell that leads it to its prey. Morays are vital to the ocean ecosystem because they help to keep it in balance by eating prey that is already dead. The moray eel is unique in the animal kingdom for having a set of jaws with teeth in its throat, and it uses them to drag its prey into its digestive system.

For moray eels, breeding season begins when the temperature of the water reaches its maximum. Morays breed either as a couple or as two males and one female, with eggs and sperm released at the same time and fertilized in the water. After hatching, the larvae float in the ocean for about eight months before swimming down to begin life in their chosen habitat. It takes about two years for a larva to become an adult moray eel. Depending on the species, moray eels live about six to 36 years.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a moray eel?

A moray eel is a large species of eel found in both temperate and tropical waters. They belong to the family Muraenidae, which comprises approximately 200 species. Moray eels are known for their elongated bodies, distinctive jaws, and lack of pectoral fins. They are mostly nocturnal and hide in crevices within coral reefs or rocky substrates.

How do moray eels hunt for food?

Moray eels are carnivorous predators that utilize a unique hunting technique involving a second set of jaws called pharyngeal jaws. When a moray bites its prey, these internal jaws reach forward into the mouth, grasp the prey, and pull it down the eel's throat. This efficient method allows them to capture and consume a variety of marine animals.

Are moray eels dangerous to humans?

Moray eels are not typically aggressive towards humans unless provoked or disturbed. However, they have sharp teeth and a powerful bite, which can inflict serious injuries. Divers are advised to respect their space and avoid putting hands into crevices where morays may be hiding. Incidents involving morays are rare and usually result from accidental encounters.

Can moray eels live in freshwater?

While the vast majority of moray eels are marine species, there are a few that can live in brackish or freshwater environments. For example, the freshwater moray eel (Gymnothorax polyuranodon) can be found in rivers and estuaries in the Indo-Pacific region. However, such species are the exception rather than the rule.

What is the lifespan of a moray eel?

The lifespan of a moray eel can vary depending on the species, but many can live for a considerable amount of time. On average, moray eels live between 10 to 30 years in the wild. In captivity, with proper care, they can reach the upper end of this range, demonstrating their potential for longevity.

How do moray eels reproduce?

Moray eels reproduce through a process called spawning, where females release eggs and males release sperm into the water column simultaneously. This external fertilization usually occurs in warm waters and often involves a dance-like courtship display. The larvae, known as leptocephali, are planktonic and drift in the open ocean before settling to the bottom and maturing into adults.

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