Sashimi-Swallowing Moray Eels Become First Fish Documented Feeding On Land Without Water

Rumor has it, they wash down their sushi with some fava beans and a nice chianti. Image credit: Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock.com

If someone was trying to lure you out of bed on the coldest and rainiest of rainy days, what’s the number one treat that might inspire you to leave your comfort zone? A team of researchers recently discovered that to lure snowflake moray eels from not just their comfort zone, but also out the place they can breathe, it takes sashimi. Well played, morays.

The scientists-turned-animal-trainers were trying to encourage the eel species Echidna nebulosa out of the water and onto a platform so that they could observe how or if these fish could consume solid food out of water. Morays have been documented scooting out of the water to catch crabs, but exactly what they did with them once caught was something of a mystery.

The new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, trained the snowflake morays to undulate their way onto land to receive some raw fish. Here, they were looking to uncover the mechanism through which a moray might be able to consume food in the absence of water, and thanks to their unique morphology it turned out to be quite the show.

In case you haven’t seen the meme, moray eels have two sets of jaws. The second set is known as pharyngeal jaws and is quite common among fish, but the moray’s is really something else. They are equipped with muscles that are a bit like bungee-jump cords, meaning the eel can lunge the jaw forward to grab onto prey. Think the Xenomorph from Alien’s second mouth but make it marine.

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When the researchers watched the snowflake morays eat, they saw that they were able to pull the food into their mouths using the pharyngeal jaw as a means of transportation. The jaw lunging wasn’t quite as large a motion as it is in the water, but it achieved the goal of eating in roughly the same time.

“Most fishes really need water to feed,” said lead author Rita Mehta, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, in a statement. “This is the first example of a fish that can feed on land without relying on water.

“They have highly moveable pharyngeal jaws in their throat. Once the moray captures prey in its oral jaws, the pharyngeal jaws grab onto the prey again and move it further back into the esophagus. This mechanical movement does not rely on water.”

While there are a few marine species known to hunt on land, this is the first documented fish that can swallow its dinner without water. The mudskipper has famously come leaps and bounds (pun intended) in its terrestrial capabilities, but even this talented fish needs to hold water in its mouth when swallowing food with the help of a strong, sticky tongue.

Steel yourselves, humanity. Once they learn how to breathe air (or move in herds) it could be over for us.


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