Concealed Weapon: Eels' Second Set of Teeth

Moray eel. i i

Researchers say Moray eels have a second set of long, curved, canine-like teeth used for pulling prey down their throats. Marco Rometta/iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Rometta/iStockphoto.com
Moray eel.

Researchers say Moray eels have a second set of long, curved, canine-like teeth used for pulling prey down their throats.

Marco Rometta/iStockphoto.com

See the Eels in Action

As the Moray eel feeds, a second set of jaws emerges from the throat to help the eel swallow its prey. This video allowed researchers to identify the eel's unique feeding style. Credit: Rita Mehta.

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Moray Eel.

 
Eel x-ray. i i

These radiographs from Nature depict the position of the pharyngeal jaws in Moray eels during prey transport. Rita Mehta/Candi Stafford hide caption

itoggle caption Rita Mehta/Candi Stafford
Eel x-ray.

These radiographs from Nature depict the position of the pharyngeal jaws in Moray eels during prey transport.

Rita Mehta/Candi Stafford

From the Depths of the Sea, to Waterfall Rocks, see an eel-like fish coveted for its taste in some parts of the world.

Scientists in California have reported that moray eels have a set of teeth within a second set of jaws, called the pharyngeal jaws, that help them capture their prey.

Once the moray eel secures its prey with its first set of jaws, the pharyngeal jaws reach up from its throat, grabbing and pulling the prey down through its esophagus.

Rita Mehta is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California Davis who studies the evolution of diversity in eel feeding behavior.

Mehta used a slow-motion video camera to record a moray feeding, and she saw the pharyngeal jaws peek forward.

When Mehta examined the moray's jaws, she was surprised by their range of motion.

"What we discovered is that the pharyngeal jaws of moray's have the greatest mobility of any pharyngeal jaws ever documented," Mehta says.

Mark Westneat is curator of zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago. He also studies fish feeding behaviors and he says it's common for fish to have a pharyngeal jaw when they lack teeth used for grinding food.

But Westneat says the moray eel's pharyngeal jaw is somewhat different.

"Having a jaw in your throat that has long, recurved, canine teeth — and can actually shoot out of your throat into your mouth, grab a fish or something, and pull it down the throat — is highly unusual," he says.

But which set of teeth should be feared the most?

"Oh, man, that's tough, the front ones are really long and sharp, too," Mehta says. "I'd be afraid of both."

Mehta reports her findings in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

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