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Press Release 07-113

Moray Eels Are Uniquely Equipped to Pack Big Prey Into Their Narrow Bodies

Two sets of jaws capture and move prey to throat for swallowing

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Two views of eel anatomy: one with pharyngeal jaw at rest, one with it protracted

Moray eels have two sets of jaws: 1) the oral jaws that capture prey; and 2) the pharyngeal jaws (similar to the jaws of the monster in the movie, "Alien") that advance into the mouth and move prey from the oral jaws to the esophagus for swallowing.

Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation (after Rita Mehta, UC Davis)


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A moral eel in a coral reef

Moray eels live in confined spaces in coral reefs, where it would be impossible to use the type of suction used by most bony fish to capture and move prey into the throat. Scientists believe that the moray eel's inner set of jaws (their pharyngeal jaws), which move food from their oral jaws to their esophagus, represent an adaptation to their cramped environment. This photo was taken on a dive in Indonesia.

Credit: Rita Mehta, University of California, Davis


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A moray eel comes out of a tube and grabs a piece of squid.

A moray eel eating a piece of squid. This photo is from a series of movies that the lead researcher took while studying the eels' feeding anatomy.

Credit: Rita Mehta, University of California, Davis


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X-ray of an eel.

X-ray of an eel. Note how far the eel's pharyngeal jaw is from its mouth.

Credit: Rita Mehta, University of California at Davis


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A moray eel eating a fish.

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A moray eel eating a fish.

Credit: Rita Mehta, University of California at Davis

 

A moray eel eats a pirce of squid.  Watch for the pharyngeal jaw.

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A moray eel eats a piece of squid. As it grabs food, the pharyngeal jaw is seen coming out of its oral cavity and hooking into the squid.

Credit: Rita Mehta, University of California at Davis