See a snowflake moray eel swallow a sushi snack in an extraordinary way

The moray eel is "the first example of a fish that can feed on land without relying on water."

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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A snowflake moray eel downs sushi out of the water.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Fish are made to function in the water, and that includes the way they feed, with water a requirement for getting food into their bellies. The snowflake moray eel, however, has defied expectations. It's the subject of a new study that found it has a remarkable talent for feeding on land, no water needed.

You're probably familiar with the famous green morays, but the snowflake variety has a mottled black, yellow and white look. Like other morays, it has a second set of jaws ("pharyngeal jaws") hiding out inside that pulls food down into its throat. Turns out those jaws can help it eat prey out of the water.

"Most fishes really need water to feed," biologist Rita Mehta said in a statement from University of California at Santa Cruz this week. "This is the first example of a fish that can feed on land without relying on water." Mehta is lead author of a study on the eels published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

A video shows the eel's unusual snacking abilities in action. 

"Once the moray captures prey in its oral jaws, the pharyngeal jaws grab onto the prey again and move it further back into the esophagus," Mehta said. "This mechanical movement does not rely on water." 

Mehta's research was sparked by reports of the eels grabbing crabs on the shore. Investigating this activity in a lab proved to be a challenge. It took Mehta's team of undergraduate researchers five years to train seven moray eels to move up a ramp, snag some sashimi and eat it out of the water. You can see the results of this work in the video.

While scientists have studied land-walking fish before, this new information on land-dining fish shows how the moray eel's jaw anatomy makes it a versatile eater, whether the prey is under the waves or a fish out of water.

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