Friday 7 November 2014

Snipe Eel

Image: NOAA Photo Library
Eels are famously long and thin but none are as stupendously skinny as the Snipe Eel!

Snipe Eels are 9 species in the Nemichthyidae family. They're found in oceans all over the world, usually in the hazy depths of the twilight zone below 200 metres (660 ft) depth. Their most obvious feature is their body; long, incredibly slim and ending in a scrawny thread that continues on and on for no discernible reason. This is where the family name comes from: Nemichthys means "filament fish".

Image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Slender Snipe Eel
Their absurd length goes to such absurd lengths that one species, the Slender Snipe Eel (Nemichthys scolopaceus), has more vertebrae than any other animal. 750! Humans have 33.

However, you'll notice that there's very little meat on any of those bones, so while the Slender Snipe can reach over 1.2 metres (4 feet) in length, it weighs just a few ounces. About the same as a hamster!

Image: opencage
But let's not be rude! Don't just run your eyes up down their body (it'll take forever), look them in the eye. You'll see they have large peepers for taking in every bit of light in the dingy depths and a rather astonishing, beaky mouth. Their jaws curve apart such that the tips never meet and they have a perpetual "excited muppet" expression. You could call it the Elmo look.

It's also why they're called Snipe Eels, since snipes are birds with long, slender bills. They don't curve like that, though. So... Injured-snipe Eel? Snipe-that-flew-into-a-window Eel?

These slender jaws are covered in tiny, hooked teeth which get entangled in the antennae of tasty crustaceans. The Snipe Eel eats and then... things get weird. The Slender Snipe Eel has its anus right up near its throat, while several other species have it much further back like, you know, normal. Never has the old adage "whoever smelt it, dealt it" been more true.

Of course it's weird to have an anus in your neck, but it's also pretty odd to be closely related to a bunch of other species that don't. In other words, the Nemichthyidae family appears to suffer from some kind of "roving anus" syndrome. When will THAT make it into the medical dramas?

Image: President and Fellows of Harvard College
Spotted Snipe Eel
The Slender Snipe Eel is much more well known than the others, possibly because it's sometimes found closer to the surface in the colder parts of its range. So we know about some of the misfortunes that strike them as they mature...

They start to lose some of their teeth. Oh, cruel fate! The male actually loses ALL of his teeth and his snout gets shorter and shorter. Oh, cruel dentistry! And it's likely they die after mating just once. Oh, cruel semelparous reproduction!

The eggs float to the surface and hatch into long, transparent larvae. They're like the larvae of other eels but, predictably enough, longer. They spend several months near the surface before they descend into the twilight to metamorphose into adults.

Enjoy those teeth while you can!


Esther said...

Wow, they have 750 bones in their spine? How does that even work? Everytime their brain sends a signal to move their tail should be struggling to catch up!

Joseph JG said...

Ridiculous, isn't it? I don't know why they're like that!

TexWisGirl said...

i couldn't help but think tapeworm...

Joseph JG said...

Hahaha! I bet they have very impressive tapeworms!

Crunchy said...

That X-Ray shot makes it look like the severed head and neck of a particularly showy heron.

But they live fast and hard down in the twilight zone; ask anybody and you'll get the same answer. Nobody has any 'egrets.

Joseph JG said...

Yes to the heron, NO to the 'egrets.

And a secret, guilty yes to the 'egrets!

elfinelvin said...

The evolution of this critter would be interesting. That tail is marvelous, but why would nature select it?

Joseph JG said...

It's very strange, indeed. I can't imagine what that tail could be useful for!

Unknown said...

what are the predators