Letter

Nature 449, 79-82 (6 September 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06062; Received 26 March 2007; Accepted 3 July 2007

Raptorial jaws in the throat help moray eels swallow large prey

Rita S. Mehta1 & Peter C. Wainwright1

  1. Section of Evolution and Ecology, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, California 95616, USA

Correspondence to: Rita S. Mehta1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to R.S.M. (Email: rsmehta@ucdavis.edu).

Most bony fishes rely on suction mechanisms to capture and transport prey1. Once captured, prey are carried by water movement inside the oral cavity to a second set of jaws in the throat, the pharyngeal jaws, which manipulate the prey and assist in swallowing1, 2. Moray eels display much less effective suction-feeding abilities3. Given this reduction in a feeding mechanism that is widespread and highly conserved in aquatic vertebrates, it is not known how moray eels swallow large fish and cephalopods4, 5, 6, 7. Here we show that the moray eel (Muraena retifera) overcomes reduced suction capacity by launching raptorial pharyngeal jaws out of its throat and into its oral cavity, where the jaws grasp the struggling prey animal and transport it back to the throat and into the oesophagus. This is the first described case of a vertebrate using a second set of jaws to both restrain and transport prey, and is the only alternative to the hydraulic prey transport reported in teleost fishes. The extreme mobility of the moray pharyngeal jaws is made possible by elongation of the muscles that control the jaws8, coupled with reduction of adjacent gill-arch structures9. The discovery that pharyngeal jaws can reach up from behind the skull to grasp prey in the oral jaws reveals a major innovation that may have contributed to the success of moray eels as apex predators hunting within the complex matrix of coral reefs10, 11. This alternative prey transport mode is mechanically similar to the ratcheting mechanisms used in snakes12, 13—a group of terrestrial vertebrates that share striking morphological, behavioural14 and ecological convergence with moray eels.

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