Lauren Bucciero | Marketing Intern
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Center to explore the new living coral tanks in the Restoring Reefs exhibit in the Eversource Gallery. I was immediately captivated by the spotted creature I saw emerging from its hiding spot. It quickly slid out of its network of PVC pipes, twisting its body effortlessly in the water like a snake. It was an eel! It stared right at me with its mouth agape! When I moved, it followed. I walked to the other side of the tank and it rapidly slinked around, keeping its eyes on me. I was so fascinated with this creature that seemed to connect with me, that I quickly dove in to learn more about it.
Honeycomb moray eels are found in a number of regions, inhabiting most of the Indo-West Pacific oceans, from the eastern coast of Africa, to Japan, and even the Great Barrier Reef and Papua New Guinea. They spend most of their time in protected crevices in caves, coral reefs, and underwater ledges. These eels are carnivores and usually only leave their hiding places at night to eat. They will also swiftly stick their heads out to catch their prey, such as small fish, invertebrates, octopuses, and sometimes molluscs, without leaving the safety of their home. These eels have even been known to knot their bodies to help push larger prey near their mouths so they can take smaller bites with their sharp teeth designed for shredding.
Eels are a mostly solitary species and very territorial. They are thought to be polygynandrous, which means that both males and females have multiple mates. However, eels are so elusive, their mating behavior has not been extensively studied and there has only been one successful breeding of moray eels in captivity. Most of the information gathered has been inferred from studying similar eel species. It is thought that a female will lay her eggs in a safe spot and then release an odor to alert the males they are ready to be fertilized. The eggs will hatch in a larvae state after about 30-45 days. The larvae are independent from birth and will float in the open water where most will become prey and not make it to adulthood. After eight months, those that survive are fully grown, but do not reach sexual maturity until three years of age. The average lifespan for a honeycomb moray eel is about 30 years.
Honeycomb moray eels can be identified by their long, white to yellowish bodies with black spots that look like leopard print (they are also called leopard moray eels or tessalata moray eels). As with most moray eel species, the honeycomb secretes mucus over its scaleless skin, which contains toxins. This mucus coating can protect them from parasites. Ciguatoxin, the main toxin of ciguatera, is produced by a toxic dinoflagellate and accumulated up through the food chain, of which moray eels are top, making them potentially dangerous for humans to eat. Although safe from overfishing, honeycomb moray eels are susceptible to the impacts of climate change.
The honeycomb moray eel came to the Seacoast Science Center from the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, CT. It is approximately 5-7 years old. We are unable to determine if it is male, female, or a hermaphorodite as the only way to sex an eel is via evidence of eggs or by necropsy. The eel resides on the side of the living coral tank that represents a compromised water quality reef system because it may feed on the small fish living in the healthy reef system side. It is fed smelt, shrimp and squid.
Marine species that demonstrate behaviors we can relate to help us realize the wonder and diversity of our World Ocean. My moray eel interaction made me want to learn more about not only its species, but about its place in the wild. The more I learn about our vast ocean ecosystem, the more inspired I am to take action to protect it. I hope you have the opportunity to observe this fascinating creature up-close and and join me in committing to doing all you can to preserve and protect our amazing ocean resource.
P.S. You can view a short video I made of SSC’s Honeycomb Moray Eel here.