Snowflake morays can capture prey on land

Snowflake morays can capture prey on land

Mon, 03/01/2022 - 12:36
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A particular species of moray eel has been found to hunt not only underwater, but on land as well.

Many of us are familiar with photos of moray eels snug in their caves or crevices, peering out into the open sea.

One might imagine them venturing out to hunt for prey when hunger pangs strike or an unfortunate prey swims by, but do you know that a particular species of moray eels—the snowflake moray—can hunt on dry land as well?

At least, this was what happened when a group of scientists from UC Santa Cruz filmed snowflake morays emerging out from the water onto dry land, then grabbing a piece of meat with their fangs, and swallowing it.

The fact that snowflake morays were able to consume their prey while on land was surprising, as fish generally needed to be underwater to swallow their prey. 

In the beginning, the scientists noticed that the snowflake morays would get on land, grab the piece of food with their fangs and then return underwater to swallow it. “They feel safer in the water, so at first they would just grab the fish and go straight back into the water with it,” said Rita Mehta, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.

Trained morays

However, to better observe what was going on, the team trained seven snowflake morays to slither up a ramp onto a platform on land and then swallow a piece of fish first before returning to the water. That "training" took more than five years. 

The effort paid off, as the scientists could then document what was actually happening. It turned out that the snowflake moray has highly moveable pharyngeal jaws in their throat.

Once the snowflake moray sinks its jaws on the prey, a second set of jaws—pharyngeal jaws—swiftly emerges to clamp on to the prey and pull it down the oesophagus.

In addition, the scientists also determined that they could feed on land as well as they did in the water. “As a result, these particular morays can utilise very different environments for food resources,” said Mehta.

The findings from the study have been published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Journal of Experimental Biology

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