An Eels Lair

Of all the big fish found in aquarium shops, few inspire the attention enjoyed by eels. People seem to find eels either repulsive or adorable; no one seems to be on the fence about them. Here's a model design that can be scaled for any eel you are likely to encounter.

Aquarium Capacity 40 to 120 gallons

Aquascape Materials crushed coral rock fine grade coral rock a few large pieces branching coral skeletons artificial or natural

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Moray eel 1 (see text)

Special Requirements

Eels excel at finding a way to escape the tank. Make sure the aquarium is securely covered.

As a group, moray eels make good aquarium pets. Some get very large and should not be placed in a small tank. Four commonly available species and their tank requirements are:

• Enchelycore pardalis, Hawaiian dragon moray eel, 55-75 gallons

• Echidna nebulosa, snowflake moray eel, 40 gallons

• Gymnomuraena zebra, zebra moray eel, 120 gallons

• Gymnothorax meleagris, comet moray eel, 55-75 gallons

Although the alternative suggestions for eels are given above, many other eel species can be found in dealers' tanks. Resist the temptation, however, to purchase a ribbon eel (Rhinomuraena sp.). It seldom feeds in captivity.

A moray eel needs a lair in which to retire. Direct your aquascaping efforts toward this end. Place a cairn of rocks off-center in the aquarium, positioning them to create a deep cave. Select pieces carefully, keeping in mind the final arrangement you want and the scale of the aquarium. Building a moray cave offers the ideal use of silicone adhesive and/or portland cement to construct a stable arrangement of rocks. For a truly professional look, try the following technique. Work with the model design on a tabletop to get the positioning right before you assemble it permanently in the aquarium.

Start by placing chunky, flat-bottomed rocks a few inches apart on the tank bottom, forming the first tier of the artificial reef. You can carry the rock structure around the ends of the tank toward the front, creating a greater sense of enclosure. Next, position secondary pieces to create two walls with a gap between them. The gap should open in the direction facing the viewer and should lie near the center of the tank, though not exactly in the middle. Across the top of the gap lay a flat piece to form the roof of the cave. You can fill some of the open space with coral skeletons positioned naturally on either side of the gap in the rocks. Once all the rock is placed, add the substrate to about an inch deep. With any luck at all, your moray will settle into the artificial cave and peer out from the gap you provided.

Morays vary in their temperament and willingness to feed in captivity. Of the four species mentioned, the zebra moray may be the most reluctant to accept aquarium fare. You can tempt it at first with live crustaceans, such as small crabs or shrimp. It does not normally feed on fish but can be trained as a juvenile to take fish meat from the end of a feeding stick. With this or any other moray, impaling the food on the end of a bamboo skewer and gently moving it in front of the moray usually works to get it to eat dead foods. Snowflake morays adapt quickly, and may not even need the training period.

The dragon moray may refuse to eat for an extended period. In the ocean it eats mostly fish but will also take crustaceans. Offering live fish and/or shrimp may tempt it to start eating in its new home. The comet moray seldom needs encouragement to start eating and readily takes both living and dead seafood items. Nevertheless, it too may fast for long periods after being relocated. Provided you find no problems with water conditions, the hunger strike should cause no alarm. Just be patient and keep offering food about once a week. After a month or more of sulking, the eel will start eating. You will then be surprised at how greedily it accepts your twice-weekly offerings. Now and then any eel may stop eating again, only to resume after a few weeks. No one knows why.

I suggest installing a small spotlight trained just below the mouth of the cave. You want the viewer to experience the classic moray pose, open-mouthed, body partly extended from its hiding place. The eel, that is, not the terrified viewer.

For sheer shock value, choose the Hawaiian dragon moray. It has a habit of waiting just inside its cave, then lunging out suddenly when someone comes too close. Combined with its Halloween color scheme and its fearsome mouth full of needle-sharp teeth, this behavior seldom fails to impress. The comet moray also settles quickly into an aquarium cave, though its dental equipment lacks the scary quality of some of its relatives. The all-around best moray is probably the snowflake. Readily available from Hawaii, it reaches only about two and a half feet in length, the smallest of the four species included here. The zebra moray can approach four feet in length. You can try combining different species of moray in the same tank, though cannibalism is not unheard of. Good choices for a pairing would be the snowflake and comet morays. In a suitably large tank, a moray eel can be kept with fish too large for it to consume.


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