Spotted garden eels are mean little divas


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 20 July 2020
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Look at that face. That eel is so mad. It looks like it’s ready to scream at the kids to get off its lawn before retreating underground to write another complaint letter.

MEET THE SPOTTED garden eel (Heteroconger hassi), a strange little species with a body shaped like a rubber pencil and personality for days.

Found throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the Indo-Pacific, spotted garden eels have been recorded off the coast of Australia in the Timor Sea, the Coral Sea, and the Great Barrier Reef.

While they might look like belligerent loners, spotted garden eels are social animals, known for congregating in large, tightly knit colonies.

centennial park eel Related: The remarkable eels of Sydney’s Centennial Park

They build their burrows mere centimetres away from each other, and when they’re all poking their heads up and bobbing in unison, they really do look like garden foliage, swaying in the breeze:

Spotted garden eels use their large (relative to body size) mouths to catch plankton as it floats past. If they’re not feeding, they’ll be hiding in their burrows, which they carve out of the seafloor using their stiff, muscular tail.

They have specialised glands in their skin that secrete a mucous that hardens like cement. The mucous not only fortifies the eels’ burrows so they don’t cave in, but is also used to create a temporary seal at the entrance, blocking any would-be intruders from getting in.

Unfortunately for the spotted garden eels, certain predators have figured out other ways to get to them.

Snake eels will dig into the sand under the burrow and attack the spotted garden eel from below. Triggerfish will chase the eels into their burrows, then ‘dive-bomb’ the sea floor to force them out.

No wonder they look like this all the time:

(Image credit: WaterFrame / Alamy Stock Photo)

Life in the ocean can be tough for spotted garden eels, but when they’re in captivity, with not a care in the world… let’s just say they let it go to their head, just a touch.

Earlier this year, the Sumida Aquarium, which is located in Japan’s Tokyo Skytree tower, announced that its spotted garden eel colony had started hiding strangely, hiding from the staff whenever they approached.

Because of the pandemic, the eels weren’t getting any visitors, and the aquarium staff were concerned that they were becoming insular and unapproachable.

The solution? An emergency ‘Face Showing Festival’.

In May, the aquarium appealed to the public to facetime the eels for three days, with the goal of “not forgetting the existence of humans”.

The bad news? Judging by this tweet last month, it wasn’t enough:

Tough crowd.

Here are some spotted garden eels being much more forthcoming, looking like skinny little Muppets: