The white-ring garden eel is an interesting species, restricted to the tip of the Baja California Peninsula. It is a true eel and reaches lengths of at least three feet (one meter). The white-ring garden eel is one of approximately 35 species of garden eels that get their name from the aggregations that they form on sandy bottoms near rocky and coral reefs.
Garden eels burrow tail first into the sand, and several individuals (as many as hundreds) live close to each other, forming “gardens” of eels that sway back and forth and bob up and down like prairie dogs in order to balance their need to feed with the security that their burrows provide. The white-ring garden eel eats tiny zooplankton but never fully leaves its burrow to feed. It always maintains some contact with its burrow, even if just via its tail. This species has large, well-developed eyes and excellent eyesight that it uses to locate and attack individual plankton. This method is in stark contrast to the large-bodied filter feeders (like the whale shark) that blindly filter huge volumes of water in order to obtain sufficient food. White-ring garden eels also utilize their above average eyesight to avoid predation, and they are very effective at retreating into their burrows long before predators are close enough to attack. There are some species that specialize on feeding on this species and other garden eels. Successful predators are those that can either dig out individual white-ring garden eels or burrow under the sand to attack them from below.
During the mating season, males and females move their burrows closer and closer until they can temporarily combine them. White-ring garden eels mate via a behavior known at broadcast spawning, where the female releases her eggs and the male releases his sperm into the water column at the same time. This process increases the likelihood that eggs will become fertilized and that fertilized eggs will not be eaten by egg predators near the seafloor. Unlike many species of broadcast spawners, white-ring garden eels spawn in pairs. Males guard females from other potential suitors, often violently.
The conservation status of the white-ring garden eel is not currently known. Some scientists believe this species to be synonymous with another, more widely ranging garden eel. If this species is valid, however, it may be at some risk of endangerment because of its small home range and because of the relatively high impact that human activity has on and near reefs throughout its range. This species is not eaten by people and is only rarely collected for display in public aquaria. Ecosystem change is the greatest threat to this and similar species.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.