The Loh Down On Science

Why eels may be some of the weirdest fish in the sea

Candi Stafford / Rita Mehta / University of California Davis

These X-rays show a moray eel's head and jaws: the top with the mouth slightly open and the bottom with the mouth wide open, revealing the second set of jaws.

Quick, call the authorities; aliens have been spotted underwater!  

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, saying:  Make that EEL-iens.  

It's a story stranger than science fiction:  When a moray eel bites off more than it can chew, it uses a second set of hidden jaws to move food down the hatch.  Think: Sigourney Weaver's – I mean Ripley's – fanged nemesis in Alien.  Yikes!  

UC Davis researchers Rita Mehta and Peter Wainwright discovered these alien-like jaws by watching high-speed video of eels feeding.  See, most bony fish use suction to capture prey and get it down their throats.  Although moray eels are fish, they have much less suction power than their large-finned counterparts.  

So, to make up for the lack of suction, they’ve evolved a second pair of jaws ... in their throat!  Ew?  After the front jaws grab unsuspecting prey, the back jaws shoot out, seize the food with small hooked teeth, and pull it in. 

This evolutionary advantage may be what makes moray eels top predators at coral reefs.  

So instead of Alien 2, they should have called it Jaws 2.  Oh, they already made that movie.  Never mind.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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