Concealed Weapon: Eels' Second Set of Teeth California researchers have discovered that moray eels have a second set of jaws in the back of their throats with razor-sharp teeth that help them catch their prey. The findings are published in the latest issue of the science journal, Nature.
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Concealed Weapon: Eels' Second Set of Teeth

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Concealed Weapon: Eels' Second Set of Teeth

Concealed Weapon: Eels' Second Set of Teeth

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Just in case you needed one, here is another reason not to tangle with a Moray eels. Scientists in California have found out how Morays use a second set of jaws.

Here's NPR's Joe Palca.

JOE PALCA: Scientists can become quite specialized in their work.

RITA MEHTA: I study the evolution of diversity in feeding behaviors, and I'm particularly interested in animals that are really long and skinny.

PALCA: Rita Mehta is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis. She started off studying snakes, but now she's turned her attention to eels. It's well known that Moray eels have the impressive teeth in their mouth. Mehta was interested in a second jaw at the back of their throats that also has teeth.

MEHTA: They have these wicked-looking recurved teeth.

PALCA: Which teeth do you think I would be more afraid of, the front ones or the back ones?

MEHTA: Oh, man, that's tough. The front ones are really long and sharp, too. I'd be afraid of both.

PALCA: The teeth in back are attached to something called a pharyngeal jaw. When Mehta used a slow-motion video camera to record a Moray feeding, she saw something remarkable.

MEHTA: Once the Moray captures prey in its oral jaws, the pharyngeal jaws reach up from the throat region into the oral cavity to grab the prey and pull the prey into the throat and into the esophagus.

PALCA: If you've seen the movie "Alien," you have an idea of what she's describing. A clip from the video Mehta shot is on NPR's Web site. Mehta reports her findings in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

Mark Westneat is curator of zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago. He also studies fish feeding behaviors. He says it's common for fish to have a pharyngeal jaw without teeth they can use for grinding food.

MARK WESTNEAT: But having a jaw in your throat that has long, recurved canine teeth and can actually shoot out of your throat into your mouth and grab a fish or something and pull it down the throat is highly unusual.

PALCA: And according to Westneat, quite unexpected.

WESTNEAT: We thought we knew, you know, most or all of the cool mechanisms that occur in fish skulls, and this is a new one so it's very exciting.

PALCA: It's always nice to find something cool and exciting.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joe Palca. And Joe, I have to ask, how did it take until now before scientists realized that these creatures had an extra jaw that reaches out and grabs things?

PALCA: Well, actually, they knew about the jaw, but it was the high-speed video camera that actually allowed them to see this reaching out and grabbing, which was pretty remarkable when they saw it; it was one of those aha moments. Do we have a couple more seconds?

INSKEEP: For you, always, Joe.

PALCA: Oh, great, because there is a song about Morays. You might recognize it.


INSKEEP: Oh, yes. I love this song.

PALCA: Oh, yeah.

INSKEEP: Let's sing it.

PALCA: Okay.

INSKEEP: (Singing) When an eel bites your thigh as you're just swimming by, it's a Moray. When you scream and you beg but it still bites your leg that's a Moray. There's a thing on the reef with big white shining teeth, it's a Moray.

PALCA: My fault, sorry.

INSKEEP: (Singing) If he's big and he's mean and he's slimy and green, it's a Moray.

PALCA: A little off on that one.

INSKEEP: Trying to harmonize.

PALCA: Oh, sorry. Pull the plug.


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