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Snowing at the GCA? A Closer Look at the Snowflake Eel

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Recently at the aquarium we became home to some incredibly special sea life: The Snowflake Eel. Growing up to 36 inches in length, these eels have quite a lot in common with the better-known moray. In fact, although they may appear vastly different than the usual green eel, snowflake eels are one of 200 different species of morays.

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Despite a particularly hostile-looking exterior, snowflake eels prefer not to hunt for active prey. Though you may see them moving around during the day at aquariums, these slender animals are nocturnal. The usual tactic is to scout out “sleeping” fish and crustaceans as they rest on the bottom through the night.

This preferential hunting of crustaceans is unique to snowflake morays. However, a large part of what makes these animals such effective hunters is a common trait: jaw strength. Since eels have no real appendages, they must rely on particularly powerful jaws. In fact, moray eels have two sets of them. The preliminary jaw clamps down to hold onto prey while the second set, known as pharyngeal jaws, slice in further to transport the meal to the digestive system. You probably won’t be able to see this second jaw since it normally is kept in the eel’s throat and only released during an attack.

Interestingly, these normally solitary animals are the only known species of fish to cooperate in inter-species hunting. Of the hundreds of species of moray, they are known to hunt jointly to capture prey normally outside the capability of certain species. Also unique to the moray is its durability. Able to survive out of water for a fairly astonishing amount of time (some claim up to 12 hours), and rarely susceptible to disease, morays can survive in demanding environments.

Although they may appear slow, eels must be respected as a dangerous animal. They do fear contact with humans, choosing to hide rather than investigate, but eels will attack if their burrow is disturbed. With such powerful jaws a bite from a large moray can easily be serious. Taking a situation to critical levels is that when eels bite, they simply do not let go. Even to the point of death, eels must be pried off of victims.

While snowflake and other types of moray eels can be kept as pets, it is not recommended. Between their powerful bite, delicate diet and ability to escape from nearly any household tank, owning such an animal can be dangerous for both the owner and the eel.

From a very unique diet to equally special coloring, few animals appear quite as mysterious yet graceful as the snowflake moray. Come see them at their new home, the Greater Cleveland Aquarium!