Snipe eel

About the Snipe eel

In the fish-eat-fish world of the twilight zone, creatures tend to strip away all the body parts that don’t serve them. Over time, the snipe eel has taken this evolutionary asceticism to the extreme, paring its body down to a mere filament at the end. In the case of N. scolopaceus (the slender snipe eel), the only place its anus would fit is on its slightly wider throat. Males of this species also shorten their jaws and lose their teeth as they grow, perhaps signaling their sexual maturity. As thin as they are, snipe eels haven’t skimped on their backbone, however: N. scolopaceus holds the evolutionary honor of having the most vertebrae of any species on earth (750 on average).

Snipe eels invest their precious biological resources on relatively large eyes—the better to see predators in the dim middle ocean with, my dear. Like many twilight zone dwellers, their dark brown or gray bodies blend into the murk, but they don’t sport any bioluminescent bells and whistles.

This streamlined eel takes an efficient approach to eating as well. Its beak-like jaws are curved upward and thus remain permanently agape, putting the eel on mealtime autopilot as it swims through the depths. Eventually, a small crustacean will end up in a snipe eel’s mouth, where tiny, backwards-pointing teeth keep the prey from escaping.

Various species of snipe eels have been caught—either alone or in the bellies of other fish—in waters as deep as 4,500 meters (14,800 feet). They’re most commonly found between 300 to 600 meters, or about 1,000 to 2,000 feet. Like most eels, juveniles (known as leptocephali) are flat and transparent, a trait that lets them hide in plain sight in the warm surface layers of tropical and temperate seas.

Quick Facts

Common NameSnipe eel
Scientific NameNine species in the Nemichthys, Labichthys and Avocettina genera
Other NamesThread fish, deep sea duck, slender snipe eel, boxer snipe eel, Southern snipe eel, Avocet snipe eel, Yano’s snipe eel
SizeUp to 1.3 meters (about 5 feet) but weighs anywhere from a few grams/ounces to less than a half kilo (1 pound)
DiscoveryJohn Richardson, 1848
Eats what?Small crustaceans, usually shrimp
Eats how?Swims with mouth open to snag prey on tiny hooked teeth
Is eaten by?Larger fish such as rockfish