Suddenly, a snowflake moray eel named Qani heaves its muscled bucatini of a body out of the water and onto the ramp.
Mehta first described the moray eel’s second set of choppers, known as pharyngeal jaws, in 2007.
When a moray hunts, it seizes its prey with the teeth of its outer jaw, and then its pharyngeal jaws leap forward out of the throat and into the mouth to grasp the prey and drag it deeper into the eel’s body.
Mehta has described how snowflake eels and other morays use their pharyngeal jaws to feed just as effectively on land as in water, according to a study published this month in The Journal of Experimental Biology.
Mehta had also seen morays hunting on land — snagging land crabs on a beach in Bali — but the real question of her research was what the eels did with their prey after they bit down?
Mehta decided to train a small cohort of eels to feed on land and to film them in the act.
She sourced snowflake moray eels from an aquarium wholesaler, and two of her former graduate students, Benjamin Higgins and Jacob Harrison, designed and installed a sand-covered Plexiglas ramp in each eel tank.
Mehta and a rotating cast of students trained seven eels to feed on the ramp.
He trained Qani to wiggle farther and farther up the ramp and feed from forceps in just three weeks — the fastest of any eel in the study.
Benjen, who was nearly twice as long as Qani and the largest eel in the study, eventually refused to climb the ramp for the uniformly measured 1.1-inch pieces of squid that all of the other trained eels received.
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