- Moray eels have a second jaw in their throat that sucks prey down their gullet
- Snowflake morays can slither onto land and grab a tasty crab with this 'pharyngeal' jaw
- Researchers finally recorded this behavior, verifying the eel is the first known fish '[to] feed on land without relying on water'Fish prefer to dine in—feeding on their prey in water—but amazing new footage demonstrates that a species of moray eel can snatch and swallow their victims on dry land.
The brightly colored chordate is able to achieve this astounding feat thanks to an extra set of jaws in its throat.
After years of effort, researchers at UC Santa Cruz were able to train snowflake morays to wriggle out of the water to grab a bite, proving they are quite adaptable when it comes to landing a meal.
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All moray eels have 'pharyngeal jaws,' a second set of mandibles nestled in their throat.
The eels bite their prey with their primary 'oral' jaws, then suck it down their gullets with their interior pharyngeal jaws, which pop out briefly. The eerie action has drawn comparisons to the terrifying secondary mouth of the Xenomorph from the Aliens movie franchise.
In a study published this week in The Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers explained how the snowflake moray uses its pharyngeal jaws to feed on dry landMost fishes really need water to feed,' said lead author Rita Mehta, an ecologist at UC Santa Cruz's Institute of Marine Sciences, in a statement. 'This is the first example of a fish that can feed on land without relying on water.'
Mehta had received reports of snowflake morays reaching out of the water to feed in the wild, but wanted to observe the phenomenon in the lab.
'These particular moray eels tend to eat hard-shelled prey like crabs, and I would see reports in the literature of them moving out of the water and lunging for crabs,' she said, 'but it was unclear what happened next.'
Other fish are known to flirt with an amphibious lifestyle, like mudskippers, ' which come up onto mudflats 'and grab prey like small crabs and insects,' Mehta said.
But mudskippers 'cheat' by storing water in their mouths to swallow their meals—snowflake morays don't need to bother with all that, according to Mehta.
'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.'
But verifying the behavior with footage was no mean feat: it took Mehta's team more than a half-decade to train seven snowflake eels to slither up on a ramp, snatch a slice of sashimi and swallow it before slinking back into the water.
'They feel safer in the water, so at first they would just grab the fish and go straight back into the water with it,' she said.
Finally, they captured the jaw-dropping behavior on video, proving that at least one species of moray 'can utilize very different environments for food resources,' she said.
Snowflake morays, which can grow as long as 40 inches, are named for their mottled black, yellow and white coloring.
They're widespread throughout the Indo-Pacific region and are also found in the eastern Central Pacific, from Mexico to northern California.
Living at depths of between 10 and 100 feet, the carnivorous fish enjoys shrimp, krill and octopus, among other prey.