The spotted moray is one of several large moray species that live on coral and rocky reefs of the western Atlantic Ocean. As their common name suggests, spotted morays are covered from head to tail in spots. All morays are true eels and have the characteristic long, skinny body of other eels, and spotted morays reach sizes of over six feet (two meters).
Observers typically only see the head and a small portion of the body, however, sticking out from a hiding place in the reef. Besides the occasional sick or wounded fish that wanders past their burrows, spotted morays do much of their hunting on the move, at night and during the twilight hours. They are also occasionally active during the day, but their poor swimming ability puts them at risk of predation by larger fishes, including some groupers and sharks.
Spotted morays, like most morays, have poor eyesight and rely heavily on their sense of smell. For that reason, it can be quite easy for SCUBA divers to approach these fish, but caution should be taken, as the spotted moray’s bite can be strong. In amazing recent research, scientists demonstrated how morays use a second set of jaws in their throats to manipulate food that they have captured. Morays are unable to create suction with their mouths, so their prey has to be manually pushed to the back of the throat, something that is difficult to do without limbs. On land, snakes have a similar problem, but they are able to unhinge their jaws, one at a time, to “walk” their mouths down the prey’s body. Morays do not have that ability, and instead use their second set of jaws to manipulate their food. Attached to the esophagus via strong muscles, these “pharyngeal” jaws reach forward into the mouth, grasp the prey item from the oral jaws, which release at that time, and pull it back to the muscles of the throat. Using slow motion cameras, scientists have been able to video the exchange of food between the two sets of jaws. X-ray images of morays clearly show the pharyngeal jaws and highlight their similarity to the oral jaws.
Though spotted morays are rarely eaten by humans – typically only after being accidentally caught in fish traps – there is not a targeted fishery for this species. Population trends are not currently known, but there is no evidence to suggest that human activity threatens the spotted moray. However, as human activity does continue to threaten their habitat (coral reefs), it is important for scientists to continue to research this and other species, to ensure that populations are in fact stable.