Moray Eels

Morays are often seen with their head poking out of a hole in the reef.
Moray eels are large eels that belong to the family Muraenidae. They are found in most parts of the world and under varied ecological conditions. There are approximately 200 species of eels that belong to this family, with the largest being the slender giant moray which can grow up to 13 feet ( 4 m) in length. Most morays measure five feet (1.5 m.) in length and frequent tropical and subtropical coral reefs to depths of 200 meters, where they spend most of their time crammed inside crevices and alcoves.

Often seen with their heads poking out of a hole in the reef, they are not usually aggressive and do not present a danger to divers as long as they are left alone. Some morays are active (swimming about the reef) during the day, while others are nocturnal in their habits, and all morays are carnivores, feeding on a variety of fishes, cephalopods (mainly octopus) and crustaceans. They secrete a protective mucus over their scaleless skin which contains a toxin in some species. Their small circular gills, located on the flanks far posterior to the mouth, require the moray eel to maintain a gaping mouth in order to facilitate respiration. The dorsal fin extends from just behind the head, along the back and joins seamlessly with the caudal and anal fin. Most species lack pectoral and pelvic fins, adding to their snake-like appearance. Their eyes are rather small, and morays rely on their highly developed sense of smell, lying in wait to ambush their prey. Their bodies are patterned cryptically, the camouflage also being present inside the mouth. Their jaws are equipped with strong, sharp teeth, which enable them to seize and hold their prey (chiefly other fishes) but also to inflict serious wounds on their enemies, including humans.

Hand-feeding moray eels is risky business and not recommended. They are apt to attack humans only when disturbed, but then they can be quite vicious. To prevent contact and possible severe injury keep hands out of those rocky areas, holes and crevices. If you must, use a stick to probe. Injuries can result in bleeding, severe muscle damage and chipped bones. Stop any bleeding, clean wounds thoroughly and get medical help to guard against infection. If you are fishing be careful, as dead fish, blood or bait will bring them out of their holes. Frequently lobsters will be in the same hole as the eel, in this case at least two of the lobsterís antennae (feelers) will be directed backward to keep check of the eel. Studies of the reproduction of morays have revealed two types of hermaphroditism: most species appear to be protandrous (sequential) hermaphrodites that become mature as males and then later in life change to females; but some species are synchronous (simultaneously male and female) hermaphrodites, with functional ovaries and testes at the same time. The life cycle of the eels is a process where eels hatch from eggs that the female lays. A newly-hatched egg called the larva is transparent, gelatinous, leafshaped, and free-floating. As the larva grows and is carried along by ocean currents, its body changes shape (it metamorphoses) into a tiny, transparent, cylindrical- shaped eel (called a glass eel).

As it matures and develops some color, it is called an elver. It will metamorphose one more time, becoming an adult (having adult coloration and able to breed). Morays arenít fast swimmers and usually move around the reef at night sniffing out food while spending the daytime holed up. It is not very common to see one out in the open, but when you do, these magnificent creatures of the underworld are a great spectacle to watch and are best viewed from a distance.

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