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California moray eel

California moray eel

On Exhibit: Splash Zone & Penguins

Animal Facts

  • Scientific Name

    Gymnothorax mordax

  • Animal Type


  • Diet

    small reef fish, octopuses, shrimps, crabs, lobsters, and sea urchins

  • Size

    to 5 feet (1.5 m) in length

  • Relatives

    conger eels, garden eels; Class: Actinopterygii; Order: Anguilliformes; Family: Muraenidae

Natural History

California moray eels are long slim snakelike fish. They sport bodies light to dark brown or green color. Unlike most fishes moray eels have no pelvic fins, pectoral fins, or gill covers. Most fish breathe by closing and opening their gill covers to force water over their gills. Without gill covers moray eels must constantly open and close their mouths to breathe, so they appear to be gasping for breath.

Moray eels, during the day, sit in crevices with only their heads protruding. At night they prowl across the reef looking for octopuses and small fishes. These unusual fish don't have scales. A yellowish mucus covering the eel's skin protects it from being abraded by the rough surfaces.


Moray eels do not seem to be threatened but since they are shallow water fish, pollution and habitat degradation can affect them.

Cool Facts

After California moray eels spawn, the eggs hatch into larvae that may drift in the currents for up to 12 months before settling to the bottom and taking the adult form. Juveniles live in tidal pools and adults live in deeper water. Moray eels live for about 30 years.

It is thought that the California morays off southern California do not reproduce—possibly because the water is too cold. Eels living here hatch off Baja California and drift north as larvae.

Fishes that live in open environments can quickly open their mouths wide when prey approaches, creating a negative pressure that helps suck the prey in. This doesn't work for moray eels. They live in small spaces where they can't open their mouths wide enough to create negative pressure. Instead, they have an extra set of jaws in their throat. When the front jaws bites into prey, the back jaws spring forward and drag the prey into the eel's throat.

Eels have sharp teeth covered with bacteria. A bite can be painful or might become infected. Even though eels don't bite unless disturbed or frightened, it's best not put ones hands in crevices in eel territory.

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