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Moray eel
Fossil range: Late Miocene–Recent
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Superorder: Elopomorpha
Order: Anguilliformes
Family: Muraenidae

See text.

Moray eels are cosmopolitan eels of the family Muraenidae. The approximately 200 species in 15 genera are almost exclusively marine, but several species are regularly seen in brackish water and a few, for example the freshwater moray (Gymnothorax polyuranodon) can sometimes be found in freshwater.[2] With a maximum length of 11.5 centimetres (4.5 in), the smallest moray is likely the Snyder's moray (Anarchias leucurus),[3] while the longest species, the slender giant moray (Strophidon sathete) reaches up to 4 metres (13 ft).[4] The largest in terms of total mass is the giant moray (Gymnothorax javanicus), which reaches almost 3 metres (9.8 ft) and can weigh over 36 kilograms (79 lb).



Photo of undulating moray on top of a coral colony
Muraena helena showing typical moray eel morphology: robust anguilliform shape, lack of pectoral fins and circular gill openings

The dorsal fin extends from just behind the head along the back and joins seamlessly with the caudal and anal fins. Most species lack pectoral and pelvic fins, adding to their snake-like appearance. Their eyes are rather small; morays rely on their highly developed sense of smell, lying in wait to ambush prey.

The body is generally patterned. Camouflage is also present inside the mouth. Their jaws are wide, framing a protruding snout. They possess large teeth, designed to tear flesh as opposed to holding or chewing.

Two diagrams of head and spine, one showing the pharyngeal jaw at rest; the other showing the jaws extended into the mouth
Moray eel jaw anatomy

Moray eels' heads are too narrow to create the negative pressure that most fish use to swallow prey. Quite possibly because of this, they have a second set of jaws in their throat called pharyngeal jaws, which also possess teeth. When feeding, morays launch these jaws into the mouth, where they grasp prey and transport it into the throat and digestive system. Moray eels are the only animal that uses pharyngeal jaws to actively capture and restrain prey.[5][6][7] Larger morays are capable of seriously wounding humans.

Morays secrete a protective mucus over their smooth, scaleless skin which in some species contains a toxin. Morays have much thicker skin and high densities of goblet cells in the epidermis that allows mucus to be produced at a higher rate than in other eel species. This allows sand granules to adhere to the sides of their burrows in sand-dwelling morays[8], thus making the walls of the burrow more permanent due to the glycosylation of mucins in mucus. Their small circular gills, located on the flanks far posterior to the mouth, require the moray to maintain a gap in order to facilitate respiration.

Morays are carnivorous and feed primarily on other fish, cephalopods, mollusks, and crustaceans. Groupers, other morays, barracudas and sea snakes are among their few predators. There is a commercial fishery for several species, but some cause ciguatera fish poisoning. Morays hide in reef crevices until their prey is close enough for capture. They then lunge out and clamp the prey in their strong jaws.



Cooperative hunting

Photo of eel with shrimp in its mouth
A Pacific cleaner shrimp cleans the mouth of a moray eel.

A species of reef-associated grouper, the roving coral grouper (Plectropomus pessuliferus), often recruits morays to aid them while hunting for food. This is the only known instance of interspecies cooperation among fish.[9][10]


The Morays have sometimes been described as vicious or ill-tempered. Morays hide from humans and would rather flee than fight. Morays are shy and secretive, and attack humans only in self-defense or mistaken identity (for example, a finger placed in a crevice where a moray resides may resemble a prey-item). Most attacks involve accidental bites during human initiated interaction. Morays cannot see very well and rely mostly on their acute sense of smell. Morays, however, do inflict a nasty bite, and while the majority are not believed to be venomous, circumstantial evidence suggests that a few species may be.[11]

Eels that have eaten certain types of toxic algae or fish that have eaten some of these algae, they can cause ciguatera fish poisoning if eaten. Large morays can also cause extreme physical trauma, in some cases amputating a diver's finger. Morays rest in crevices during the day and hunt nocturnally, although they may ensnare small fish and crustaceans that pass near them during the day.[10]


Moray eels are cosmopolitan, found in both tropical and temperate seas, although the largest species richness is at reefs in warm oceans. Very few species occur outside the tropics or subtropics, and the ones that do only extend marginally beyond these regions. They live at depths of up to several hundred metres, where they spend most of their time concealed inside crevices and alcoves. While several species regularly are found in brackish water, very few species can be found in freshwater, for example the freshwater moray (Gymnothorax polyuranodon) and the pink-lipped moray eel (Echidna rhodochilus).



Whitemouth moray, Gymnothorax meleagris


  1. ^ "Muraenidae". FishBase. Ed. Rainer Froese and Daniel Pauly. January 2009 version. N.p.: FishBase, 2009.
  2. ^ "Gymnothorax polyuranodon". FishBase. Ed. Ranier Froese and Daniel Pauly. January 2010 version. N.p.: FishBase, 2010.
  3. ^ "Anarchias leucurus". FishBase. Ed. Ranier Froese and Daniel Pauly. January 2010 version. N.p.: FishBase, 2010.
  4. ^ "Strophidon sathete". FishBase. Ed. Ranier Froese and Daniel Pauly. January 2010 version. N.p.: FishBase, 2010.
  5. ^ Mehtal, Rita S.; Peter C. Wainwright (2007-09-06). "Raptorial jaws in the throat help moray eels swallow large prey". Nature(journal) 449: 79–82. doi:10.1038/nature06062. Retrieved 2007-09-06.  
  6. ^ Hopkin, Michael (2007-09-05). "Eels imitate alien: Fearsome fish have protruding jaws in their throats to grab prey.". News. doi:10.1038/news070903-11. Retrieved 2007-09-06.  
  7. ^ National Science Foundation (Sep. 5, 2007)
  8. ^ Fishelson L (September 1996). "Skin morphology and cytology in marine eels adapted to different lifestyles". Anat Rec. 246 (1): 15–29. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-0185(199609)246:1<15::AID-AR3>3.0.CO;2-E. PMID 8876820.  
  9. ^ In the December 2006 issue of the journal Public Library of Science Biology, a team of biologists announced the discovery of interspecies cooperative hunting involving morays. The biologists, who were engaged in a study of Red Sea cleaner fish (fish that enter the mouths of other fish to rid them of parasites), made the discovery.An Amazing First: Two Species Cooperate to Hunt | LiveScience
  10. ^ a b Bshary R, Hohner A, Ait-el-Djoudi K, Fricke H (Dec 2006). "Interspecific communicative and coordinated hunting between groupers and giant moray eels in the Red Sea". PLoS Biol. 4 (12): e431. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040431. PMID 17147471. PMC 1750927.  
  11. ^ Randall, J. E. (2005). Reef and Shore Fishes of the South Pacific. University of Hawi'i Press. ISBN 0824826981

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Simple English

Moray eel
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Anguilliformes
Family: Muraenidae
Reticulate moray,
Muraena retifera

Moray eels is a family of eel. Sometimes they are also called by their Latin name Muraenidae. Moray eels can be found all over the world. There are 200 different species in 15 genera. Typically, moray eels grow to a length of about 1.5 metres. The largest known moray eel is the Slender giant moray, which can reach 4 metres in length. Moray eels live in coral reefs, at a depth of about 200m. These reefs are usually in tropical or subtropical waters. They spend most of their time inside deep cracks in rocks. Morays are carnivores. They prey on other fish, cephalopods, mollusks, and crustaceans. Groupers, other moray eels, and Barracudas are amongst their predators.

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