“HERE THERE BE MONSTERS!”

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A lot of people are scared of the moray eel. A lot of people will tell you that they (the moray eel not the people themselves) are aggressive, dangerous and, above all, real ugly.

It is easy to understand these misconceptions (with the exception of the aesthetic value of the moray, after all beauty is in the eye of the beholder); morays are a snakelike fish (most humans have a fear of snakes or anything that slightly resembles a snake), are often “seen” demonstrating an aggressive posture (constantly flashing their fearsome teeth by opening and closing their mouths) and, thanks to movies such as Pete Yates’ The Deep, have a reputation for liking nothing better than to chow down on an unsuspecting diver.

Hopefully by the time you’ve finished reading this article you’ll have, if not a love of the moray, at least a positive appreciation of these wonderful creatures.

Moray eels are cosmopolitan eels (i.e. its range extends across all or most of the world in appropriate habitats) of the family Muraenidae. With a maximum length of 11.5 centimeters, the smallest moray is most likely the Snyder’s moray (Anarchias leucurus), while the longest species, the slender giant moray (Strophidon sathete) can reach up to 4 meters. The largest in terms of total mass is the giant moray (Gymnothorax javanicus), which reaches almost 3 meters and can weigh over 36 kilograms.

The moray’s body is generally patterned. And what patterns! Speckled, tattooed, freckled, stripped … the morays skin patterns are easily comparable with the most beautiful printed fabrics. This body pattern (or camouflage) is also present inside the mouth. Their jaws are wide, framing a protruding snout. They possess large teeth, designed to tear flesh as opposed to holding or chewing. The dorsal fin of morays extends from just behind the head along the back and joins seamlessly with the caudal and anal fins. Most species lack pectoral and pelvic fins, adding to their serpentine appearance. Their eyes are rather small and they rely on their highly developed sense of smell, lying in wait to ambush prey.

Generally fish use negative pressure to swallow their prey (the mouth pops open extremely quickly, creating a vacuum in their mouth, and causing whatever is near the mouth to be instantly sucked in) but moray eels’ heads are too narrow to create this negative pressure. Probably because of this, they have a second set of jaws in their throat called pharyngeal jaws, which also possess teeth. When feeding, morays launch these jaws into the mouth, where they grasp prey and transport it into the throat and digestive system. The best known set of pharyngeal jaws is probably those of Ridley Scott’s Alien which were inspired by, you guessed it, the pharyngeal jaws of the moray. Homicidal extraterrestrials aside, the moray eel is the only known animal that uses pharyngeal jaws to actively capture and restrain prey.

Morays secrete protective mucus over their smooth, scale-less skin which in some species contains a toxin. Morays have a very thick skin and high densities of goblet cells (cells that produce mucin which dissolves in water to form mucus) in their skin that allows mucus to be produced at a higher rate than in other eel species. This covering of mucus then enables the moray to slip and slide easily through the the reef.

Most fish breathe by closing and opening their gill covers to force water over their gills (the gills are a respiratory organ that extract dissolved oxygen from the water). Apart from scales, pectoral and pelvic fins that most other fish possess, morays also lack gill covers and therefore must constantly open and close their mouths to breathe. So, when people see morays “acting aggressively”, they are doing nothing more than breathing.

Morays are carnivorous and feed primarily on other fish, cephalopods, molluscs, and crustaceans. Morays hide in reef crevices until their prey is close enough for capture, they then lunge out and clamp the prey in their strong jaws. Morays usually hunt at night, preferably targeting with its keen sense of smell – which compensates for its poor eyesight – a weakened or dead animal; the importance of this scavenger function is utmost, and, as such, the moray unknowingly plays a genuine ecological role in the proper balance of the marine environment. Morays have few predators, but among them are groupers, barracudas and sea snakes.

The moray eel is often found with loyal friends: it maintains a symbiotic relationship with small shrimps and wrasses known as “cleaners”. These guests, like a lively toothbrush, will clean off, and at the same time feed on, parasites and scraps of food from the moray’s mouth. Reef-associated roving coral groupers (Plectropomus pessuliferus), have been observed to recruit morays to join them in hunting for food. The invitation to hunt is initiated by head-shaking. The rationale for this joining of forces is the ability of morays to enter narrow crevices and flush prey from niches not accessible to groupers. This is the only known instance of interspecies cooperative hunting among fish.

As we’ve already mentioned, the morays are frequently thought of as particularly vicious or ill-tempered animals. In truth, morays hide from humans in crevices and would rather flee than fight. Morays are shy and secretive, and attack humans only in self-defense or mistaken identity. Most attacks stem from disruption of a moray’s home (to which they do react strongly), but an increasing number also occur during hand-feeding of morays by divers, an activity used by dive companies to attract tourists. Morays have poor vision and rely mostly on their acute sense of smell, making distinguishing between fingers and held food difficult; numerous divers have lost fingers while attempting hand feedings. The moray’s rear-hooked teeth and primitive but strong bite mechanism also makes bites on humans more severe, as the eel cannot release its grip even in death and must be manually pried off.

So there you have it. A shy, secretive and unique creature, that plays an important role in the ecology of the marine world. Isn’t it time you considered this “sea monster” anything but?

PHOTOGRAPHING SEA MONSTERS

In general, morays make excellent photography subjects. Their tendency to stay in one place for long periods of times allows photographers to take their time when composing their shots. If you are able to, settle close to your subject and then wait a minute while the moray adjusts to your company. Also, morays are often found with cleaners (such as wrasse and shrimps) which gives a photographer the chance to take “down the throat” POV of the morays (the wrasses and shrimps also can add a nice contrast to the eel in terms of colours).

Morays are in general passive creatures and are usually quite happy for divers to get very close to them, another reason they make for good photography subjects, but you should always bear in mind that they are wild animals and, if they feel threatened will react in two ways – fight or flight. So, always ensure your moray has an escape route, preferably one that doesn’t involve swimming through you, should they feel the need to depart. Also, be mindful of your exact distance to the fish when taking your photos, especially if you are shooting macro.

A neat trick to grab a moray’s attention (i.e. you’ve found a moray but it’s head is hidden in the reef) is to simply click your fingers together. This will usually cause the moray to poke its head out of the reef to check you out and allow you to photograph it. Just make sure you don’t do this too close to the moray. Never try to “pull” a moray (or any marine creature for that matter) from it’s burrow; this is a very stupid thing to do and will probably end in tears (and not the morays’).


Çiğdem Cooper
lilith.lita@gmail.com

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