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The Explorer's Guide contains a treasure trove of aquatic science resources developed for use in K-12 classrooms. Back to Explorer's Guide.

Dragon Moray Eel Scientific Name: Enchelycore pardalis
In the inky darkness of night, dragon morays sniff out their prey. This fish has an excellent sense of smell. Hanging out in a reef cave, the dragon moray eel waits for a fish or octopus to swim by. Lunging out at the prey, this moray expands it mouth wide open to fit even the largest of animals. Razor-sharp backward pointing teeth trap the prey in the dragon moray’s mouth, making it impossible for the prey to escape.

Region: Philippines

Just like a dragon, this moray eel sports horns, which are really long nostrils located just in front of the eyes. Jagged teeth jut out of this dragon moray’s mouth adding to the descriptive name. This eel is also quite long—up to 3 feet (90 cm). Wild colors and patterns adorn the brownish-orange body that has small black and white spots and a head with white and orange stripes.

Unlike most other fish, moray eels don’t have scales. So to protect themselves against scrapes and parasites, they ooze a slimy coating of mucus over their thick muscular bodies.

Young dragon morays look very different from the adults. They are slimmer and the spots that cover the body are much larger.

Often nestled among the arms of branching corals or within caves and crevices, dragon morays live on rocky coral reefs at depths of 27 to 152 feet (8 to 60 m). These moray eels usually live alone, but sometimes a pair hides out in the same reef retreat.

The dragon moray lives in the warm parts of Pacific Ocean.

At rest, a dragon moray breathes through its mouth, flashing a set of sharp teeth. This fish may look mean, but it’s actually breathing. Dragon morays attack only when hungry or provoked—and they prefer fish and octopuses. Dwelling in reef holes and crevices, dragon morays wait, heads poking out, ready to lunge at unsuspecting prey.

Hunting at night, the dragon moray sniffs out its prey. Finding fish and octopuses in the dark is no problem for these eels, thanks to their excellent sense of smell. The dragon moray’s numerous teeth are so big, this fish can barely close its mouth. These sharp razor-sharp teeth face backwards, creating a trap that makes it all but impossible for prey to wriggle free. With a huge expandable mouth, the dragon moray will eat any large animal, as long as it can fit into its jaw.

Once inside the mouth, the dragon moray rotates its prey around so the animal slides down the moray’s throat head first. This keeps a fish’s sharp fin spines from piercing the throat. After swallowing the animal whole, the moray uses a behavior called knotting. Looping around twice, the moray then slips its head through the loops—like a big knot. This helps to squish up and stretch out the prey in its digestive system. Now there isn’t a big bulge in the moray’s throat from the fish or octopus that was eaten.

Reproduction in moray eels begins with a courtship ritual in the summer months when the water is warmest. Opening their mouths very wide at each other signals the start of this process. For hours, morays will then wrap their bodies around each other. Once the female lays her eggs and the male fertilizes them, the pair leaves one another.

Once hatching from the eggs, the leptocephalus larvae or young moray eels are shaped like small leaves. They can be about three inches long, very thin, and almost transparent or clear. The larvae float out in epipelagic zone or the zone in the open ocean near the surface for over eight months and when they grow enough to defend themselves. Then they swim down and join the other creatures on the reef.

Moray eels are known to exhibit three different types of reproductive ability. Some are gonochorists—born either male or female, with only one set of sex organs. Gonochorists do not have the ability to change sex. Other morays are simultaneous hermaphrodites. They have both sex organs and can reproduce with either sex. The dragon moray is a protogynous hermaphrodite, which means it can start its life as a female and then change to the male. Dragon morays have both male and female sex organs. This fish starts its life either as a male or a female, but the females can change sex if there aren’t many males around.

>A species or group of organisms that is in danger of extinction or disappearing from the face of the earth in the near future if its situation is not improved.

A species that can be found throughout its natural range but is declining in number and may become endangered in the absence of special protection efforts.

A species that is not declining in number but is of special concern because it is sensitive to pressure by particular human activities or natural events.

A species that is not declining in number and is not sensitive to pressures by human activities or natural events.

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Threats and Management
Although moray eels are popular in the pet trade, dragon morays are rarely found. If this moray is found at a pet store, it will be very expensive. It is not recommended to purchase, because the dragon moray grows much too large for most tanks. It also requires lots of caves for hiding.

Did You Know?
Although it looks evil, the dragon moray is not interested in biting snorkelers and divers. This moray only attacks if chased after or poked at.

Moray eels have very poor eyesight. They mainly rely on their sense of smell to hunt down prey.

Web Sites:
NOTE: The following Web sites are not maintained by the John G. Shedd Aquarium and will open in a new browser window.


Print Publications:
Debelius, H. 1999. Indian Ocean Reef Guide. Frankfurt, Germany: IKAN. 321p.
ISBN# 3-9317-0267-7.

Hoover, J.P. 1993. Hawaii’s Fishes. A Guide for Snorkelers, Divers and Aquarists. Honolulu, Hawaii: Mutual Publishing. 183p. ISBN# 1-56647-001-3.

Kuiter, R.H. 1998. Photo Guide to Fishes of the Maldives. Australia: Atoll Editions. 257p. ISBN# 1-876410-18-3.

Michael, S.W. 1998. Reef Fishes. Shelburne, Vermont: Microcosm. 624p.
ISBN# 1-890087-21-1.

Myers, R.F. 1999. Micronesian Reef Fishes. Barrigada, Guam: Coral Graphics. 216p.
ISBN# 0-9621564-4-2.

Perrine, D. 1997. Mysteries of the Sea. Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, Ltd. 312p. ISBN# 0-7853-2430-5.

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Vocabulary Words

Epipelagic zone – The zone of the open ocean near the surface.

Extinction – An organism that has not been present on the face of the earth for over 50 years.

Gonochorists – Animals that are born either male or female, with only one set of sex organs. Since they only have one set of sex organs, they do not have the ability to change sex.

Hermaphrodite – Having the sexual organs of both male and female; able to produce both egg and sperm.

Leptocephalus larvae – The young moray eel. Shaped like small leaves, about three inches long, very thin, and almost transparent or clear. The larvae float out in epipelagic zone for over eight months and when they grow to a certain size, they swim down and join the other creatures on the reef.

Organism – A living thing.

Pet trade – An industry or business in which animals are taken from the wild and sold to pet stores, zoos, and aquariums.

Protogynous – Starting life as a female then changing into a male.

Simultaneous hermaphrodites – Animals that have both sex organs and can reproduce with either sex.

Species – A group of organisms capable of breeding and producing fertile offspring; organisms that share the same gene pool.

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Dragon moray (Muraena pardalis) Copyright John G. Shedd Aquarium, Patrice Ceisel
Dragon moray (Muraena pardalis) Copyright John G. Shedd Aquarium, Patrice Ceisel

Dragon Moray Eel 2
Dragon Moray Eel 2

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