The remarkable pelican eel

This video, embedded in a report posted by Science, shows the remarkable behavior of the pelican eel (Eurypharynx pelecanoides), also called the “gulper eel” for reasons that will become obvious.  This rarely-seen creature, the only species in the family Eurypharyngidae, has now been put on video for the first time. While Wikipedia says this,

The stomach can stretch and expand to accommodate large meals, although analysis of stomach contents suggests they primarily eat small crustaceans. Despite the great size of the jaws, which occupy about a quarter of the animal’s total length, it has only tiny teeth, which would not be consistent with a regular diet of large fish. The large mouth may be an adaptation to allow the eel to eat a wider variety of prey when food is scarce. It can also be used like a large net. The eel can swim into large groups of shrimp or other crustaceans with its mouth wide open, scooping them up as it goes. The gulper eel is also known to feed on cephalopods (squid) and other small invertebrates. When the eel gulps its prey into its massive jaws, it also takes in a large amount of water, which is then slowly expelled through its gill slits. Gulper eels themselves are preyed upon by lancetfish and other deep sea predators.

. . the video suggests that the creature eats more fish than previously thought. Here’s part of the news piece in Science.

What would you get if you crossed a pelican with an eel? Probably something close to the aptly named pelican eel. . . a bizarre-looking fish with a slender body and a head that inflates like a balloon.

Because the pelican eel prefers to live between 500 and 3000 meters below the surface of tropical and temperate seas, it is seldom seen or photographed by humans. This makes it difficult to study the eel’s behavior to look for clues as to why it evolved such a strange head.

Now, researchers have made what they believe to be the first direct observation of a pelican eel hunting for prey and captured the behavior on video. Researchers piloted a submarine to a depth of 1000 meters in the Atlantic Ocean, about 1500 kilometers off the coast of Portugal near a constellation of islands known as the Azores.

The team spotted the eel not only inflating its head to form a pouch for catching prey, but also actively hunting and swimming after smaller fish. Previous research had hypothesized that the eels inflated their heads to lure their prey or to create a large hole into which food could fall out of the water column, but these studies relied on evidence from the stomach contents of dead eels. The new video evidence suggests the eels take a much more active role in finding food: exploring their surroundings, stalking prey, and inflating their heads to maximize the probability of engulfing them.

Here’s the video of a gulper eel filmed from a submersible off the azores; the video is stunning:


  1. W.T. Effingham
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Amazing quick change there. The eel goes from sleek swimming snake-like narrowness to a balloon shaped engulphing machine quite rapidly. That’s some versatility there.

  2. DrBrydon
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    This is just crazy. Why would God make that? (Hehe, just kidding.) Nature in all its weird panoply.

  3. Michael Fisher
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    The bottom jaw must be like a chicken wishbone. Reminds me of the inflatable tents they have now.

  4. rickflick
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating. Bizarre.

  5. Adam M.
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    You’d think that such a large, open mouth compared to its body size would kill it’s hydrodynamics and prevent it from doing much of any kind of lunge…

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 24, 2018 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      I suspect that when it starts to lunge its jaws are closed and its mouth deflated; as soon as it opens its jaws to swallow the prey its mouth will inflate.

      A bit hard to tell from the video, though.


      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted October 24, 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        If you look at my response to Heather Hastie in the thread immediately below, you’ll find the link to another video. Perhaps it would give you some clues as to what’s going on; perhaps not. Really, what the eel does looks like magic, but of course it’s not. I wish I had an app or program that would slow down the video so that I could get a good look at the transformation. That in itself is what fascinates me the most. Be sure to watch both on full screen.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted October 24, 2018 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

          The YouTube video can be viewed at 0.25 speed simply by going into the “settings” gear wheel [bottom right of screen] & going to the “Speed” Menu

          If that’s still too fast you can install the excellent & free VLC Media Player to your PC/Mac/Android/Linux device & play it at ANY slowness inc frame by frame. Bottom of the page in the link above is the different varieties of VLC. To play a YT video just tell it the source url.

          • Jenny Haniver
            Posted October 25, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink


      • Adam M.
        Posted October 24, 2018 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

        Good point. If it doesn’t open its mouth until the prey is right in front of it, the prey may get sucked in along with the water.

  6. Jenny Haniver
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Ir’s astounding. I wish the video were longer because it’s captivating to watch.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted October 24, 2018 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Same here – I wanted more! What a cool creature!

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted October 24, 2018 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        I found a nice one with more presto-changeo transformations and undulations, all about the eel, not the people, except for the oohs and aahs of the observers, a very nice touch, I think — what else can one do but ooh and aah.

        • rickflick
          Posted October 24, 2018 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

          Spooky. I’d forgotten about EVNautilus. Looks like they’re just now moving to a new location.

  7. Barry Lyons
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Okay, now THAT is a very strange creature.

  8. darrelle
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    A handy trait to have had when confronted with that Croatian meat platter.

    • Diane G
      Posted October 25, 2018 at 12:21 am | Permalink


  9. Paul S
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Love to see one up close. The video is nice but there’s nothing like being there.

  10. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink


  11. Paul Dymnicki
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable using the word creature, isn’t it an archaic reference to creation. I always think lifeform is more appropriate in today.

  12. Posted October 24, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    “…inflating their heads to maximize the probability of engulfing them.”

    I think that statement hit the nail on the head. “Strange” “weird” is not something that constrains natural selection, evolution.
    NS and E slogan: GO for IT!

  13. Mark R.
    Posted October 24, 2018 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this video. Deep sea life forms are amazingly strange. Life in deep oceans evolve some bizarre adaptations.

  14. Posted October 24, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    The Natural History Museum in London is currently showing an exhibition called “Life in the Dark”, which includes the pelican eel. Apparently I’d make a good pelican eel as I scored 5 out of 5 on a quiz about their behaviour!

  15. Posted October 26, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Pelican eel? Now all we need is an eel pelican!

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