Snake Eel Tactics For Escaping The Stomachs Of Their Captors Is The Stuff Of Nightmares

They go down fighting, but they definitely don't win. Joe Belanger/Shutterstock

Rachael Funnell 04 Jun 2020, 15:33

The iconic scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien where an embryonic xenomorph bursts out of John Hurt's chest and all over the dinner table might seem like an event confined to science fiction, but as it turns out it’s not so far from reality. New research published in the journal Memoirs of the Queensland Museum details the grisly fate of some predators that have eaten a snake eel, only to have it burst forth from their stomachs. Even more grisly however is that once free of the stomach the snake eels are still trapped inside the animal, and it only gets nastier from there. I’d recommend you finish anything you might be eating at this juncture of the story.

The research comes from a team of scientists from Northern Territory Fisheries, CSIRO Australian National Fish Collection, Queensland Museum, and Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory who were studying snake eels in Australian waters. Snake eels, also known as burrowing eels, are a long and slender species of fish characterized by their ability to rapidly reverse using a hard-pointed tail tip that cuts through the seabed

It seems logical then that when swallowed alive the snake eel would try burrowing their way out, and it's this same hard-tipped tail that allows them to rupture through the stomach wall of their captors. Unfortunately, the Houdini attempt is flawed as the eels then get stuck and eventually mummified in the gut cavity. Yikes.

The researchers discovered the mummified remains of seven species of snake eels trapped inside the body cavities of 11 different species of predatory fish. The species involved were diverse and from different locations showing that the grim series of events is likely a widespread prey-predator interaction between snake eels and their soon-to-be sarcophagi. It's also likely the fish don't even notice. 

Co-author of the study, Jeff Johnson, an Ichthyologist from the Queensland Museum, revealed that on occasion such eel-embedded specimens have been brought into the museum by confused fishermen who thought they might perhaps be some kind of giant parasitic worm. Though the nightmarish snake eel attempted escape is probably on par with the grossness of massive parasites, you have to admit the discovery has a certain flair to it. If you’re going to get swallowed, might as well go down fighting.

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