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Dragon Moray Eel

Horns. Big jagged teeth. Orange stripes and black and white spots. And a coating of slimy mucus from head to tail. Puff the Magic Dragon this isn’t.

But the dragon moray eel (Enchelycore paradalis) isn’t quite as dangerous as he looks. At rest within his lair — er — coral cave and flashing those choppers — so big that the fish can barely close his mouth — he’s just breathing by pumping water over his gills.

The horns are really long nostrils located just above his eyes. Dragon eels have an acute sense of smell that serves them well as they ambush hunt at night. And the mucous coating over this fish’s thick, muscular body protects him from parasites and nasty scrapes on sharp corals.

Dragon morays live at depths of 25 to 150 feet on reefs in the tropical Pacific. Amid the coral formations, their shocking patterns actually afford them camouflage. Sniffing out passing octopuses and fishes, this dragon lunges with mouth wide open. If he connects, the prey is impaled on many razor-sharp recurved teeth that make it impossible to wriggle free. The dragon moray will eat anything that fits within his gaping expandable mouth. (That excludes divers and snorkelers, although the eel won't hold back from biting if bothered.)

Even fishes with sharp fin spines are on the menu. The eel moves prey around in his mouth until it's pointed headfirst, with any spines flat, down the deep, dark tunnel of no return. But the eel saves the best behavior for last. After swallowing the prey whole, the moray ties himself in a knot. Looping around twice, the eel slips his head through the loops. Knotting helps squish up and then spread out the prey in the fish’s digestive system. No bumpy bulge to get stuck in coral or crevice for this dragon.

Finally, while we've been calling our dragon "him," these eels have both male and female sex organs. So a dragon moray can start life either as a male or a female, but the females can change gender if there aren't many males around.

See more of the moray in Wild Reef.


Check out new photos of Shedd's Wild Reef exhibit.

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