Their results qualify the morays as the most cosmopolitan of reef fish but only deepens the mystery of how they and the other 150 species of moray eel in the Indo-Pacific formed separate species in the first place.
One advantage of studying moray eels is that you're unlikely to be scooped by another doctoral studentnot if it means diving on reefs to collect eels.
Eels have many traits that suggest a lively intelligence. They are known, for example, for going on hunger strikes in captivity, and they hunt cooperatively with groupers in the wild.
On the other hand, they're also famous for sudden and egregious acts of aggression. Taped to Reece's office door is a meat-red photograph of a spectacular eel injury, a flayed forearm. He says he keeps it to remind himself to be careful around these fish.
"Morays have two sets of jaws," Reece explains: "Oral jaws and a set of jaws in their throat called pharyngeal jaws. Set into both pairs of jaws are big rear-facing fangs. When the eels attack prey, they actually bite them twice. They skewer prey with their oral jaws and then they launch the pharyngeal jaws into their mouths to drag it down their throats.
What's more, says Reece, once they bite, they often won't let go. You have to crush their skulls to get them off of you.
How do you collect an animal that served as the inspiration for the movie Alien?
Reece initially tried poking holes in a steel can, stuffing it full of fish and hanging it in a trap he threw into about four feet of water. "Within about 10 minutes," he says, "a four-foot moray swam up, nosed the trap, and swam into its opening. 'Oh, I thought, this is going to be easy.'"
"But then the moray bit the can in half in one bite. 'Whoa, I thought.' And the
|Contact: Diana Lutz|
Washington University in St. Louis