Photo of a Tessalata Moray Eel at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Florida (2014).
Moray eels or Muraenidae are a family of cosmopolitan eels. The approximately 200 species in 15 genera are almost exclusively marine, but several species are regularly seen in brackish water, and a few, for example the freshwater moray (Gymnothorax polyuranodon), can sometimes be found in fresh water.
With a maximum length of 11.5 cm (4.5 in), the smallest moray is likely Snyder’s moray (Anarchias leucurus), while the longest species, the slender giant moray (Strophidon sathete) reaches up to 4 m (13 ft). The largest in terms of total mass is the giant moray (Gymnothorax javanicus), which reaches 3 m (9.8 ft) in length and 30 kg (66 lb) in weight.
The dorsal fin 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; morays rely on their highly developed sense of smell, lying in wait to ambush prey.
The body is generally patterned. In some species, the inside of the mouth is also patterned. Their jaws are wide, framing a protruding snout. Most possess large teeth used to tear flesh or grasp slippery prey items. A relatively small number of species, for example the snowflake moray (Echidna nebulosa) and zebra moray (Gymnomuraena zebra), primarily feed on crustaceans and other hard-shelled animals, and they have blunt, molar-like teeth suitable for crushing.
Moray eels’ heads are too narrow to create the negative pressure most fishes use to swallow prey. Quite possibly because of this, they have a second set of jaws in their throat called pharyngeal jaws, which also possess teeth (like tilapia). When feeding, morays launch these jaws into the mouth, where they grasp prey and transport it into the throat and digestive system. Moray eels are the only animals that use pharyngeal jaws to actively capture and restrain prey.
Morays secrete a protective mucus over their smooth, scaleless skin, which in some species contains a toxin. They have much thicker skin and high densities of goblet cells in the epidermis that allows mucus to be produced at a higher rate than in other eel species. This allows sand granules to adhere to the sides of their burrows in sand-dwelling morays, thus making the walls of the burrow more permanent due to the glycosylation of mucins in mucus. Their small, circular gills, located on the flanks far posterior to the mouth, require the moray to maintain a gap to facilitate respiration.
Morays are carnivorous and feed primarily on other fish, cephalopods, molluscs, sea snakes, and crustaceans. Groupers, barracudas, and sea snakes are among their few predators. Commercial fisheries exist for several species, but some cause ciguatera fish poisoning.