Jaws of St-eel: Snowflake Moray Eels Use Their Extendable Jaws to Swallow Prey on Land

"What can your jaws do?"
"What can your jaws do?" / AndamanSE/iStock via Getty Images Plus

For most fish that can exit the water to feed on land, the skill comes with a catch: After they capture their prey, they need water to actually swallow it. This usually means dragging their food back into the lake or ocean, though some creatures have evolved special methods: the mudskipper holds water in its mouth and uses it to slurp down a meal before slinking back beneath the surface. But in the unofficial “Coolest Fish That Feeds on Land” competition, not even the mudskipper can beat the snowflake moray eel (Echidna nebulosa).

According to a study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, snowflake morays can swallow prey without any water at all—largely thanks to a second set of jaws in their throats.

These pharyngeal jaws are a fixture of all bony fish, helping them grasp and break up food. But as Live Science reports, a snowflake moray’s pharyngeal jaws don’t just sit in its throat and wait for a meal to come to them. Instead, they can travel into the eel’s mouth, grab whatever food is there, and retreat to pull it into the esophagus.

Jaw-dropping! / Zina Deretsky, U.S. National Science Foundation (after Rita Mehta, UC Davis), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Study lead author Rita Mehta, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California Santa Cruz, published research on how this process works in water back in 2007. Then, she started to wonder about its impact on land-feeding.

“These particular moray eels tend to eat hard-shelled prey like crabs, and I would see reports in the literature of them moving out of the water and lunging for crabs, but it was unclear what happened next,” she said in a UC Santa Cruz news release.

So she launched a new study to observe exactly how snowflake morays eat in the open air. Over more than five years, she and her undergraduate research team trained seven eels to slide onto a platform to obtain pieces of squid. After analyzing 67 videos of this feeding behavior, Mehta and her colleagues came to conclude that not only did the eels use their pharyngeal jaws to swallow prey out of water, but terrestrial feedings didn’t take any longer than aquatic ones.

You can see this dual-jaw action in all its glory (or horror, if you’re a squid) below.

[h/t Live Science]