Moray eels are long, slippery fish with characteristically long jaws and piercing yellow eyes. Some varieties include green moray eels and spotted moray eels.
Moray eels range in length from 6 inches to 12 feet or longer. If you’ve ever been bitten by one, you already know the pain and damage their sharp teeth can do.
In fact, moray eel bites are infamously painful and can cause extensive bleeding. This is because they have teeth that jut backwards so that prey cannot easily escape.
Moray eels also have a second set of jaws known as pharyngeal jaws that help them hold on to prey.
Moray eel bites can range from minor to serious. Quick action is necessary — read on for what to do if you’re bitten by a moray eel as well as tips for avoiding bites.
Moray eel bites range in severity. The size of the eel has a lot to do with the extent of tissue injury they can inflict.
Some of the most common symptoms of a moray eel bite include:
- extreme, immediate pain
- bleeding, which may be heavy
- puncture or bite marks
- cuts, gashes, or deep lacerations
- tissue loss from large bites
- tendon or nerve injury that can limit movement or cause numbness
Many moray eel varieties also have toxins in their mouth mucous as well as in the layer of slime that covers their bodies, including a toxin called hemagglutinin that causes red blood cells to clump.
Moray eels may also generate crinotoxins, which can destroy red blood cells. These toxins may make you more susceptible to developing infections and could also be the reason moray eel bites are so painful.
But unlike poisonous snakes, moray eels do not have hollow teeth that contain venom — so unlike a snake bite, you won’t get sick or die from venom poisoning if you’re bitten by a moray eel.
What to do immediately after a moray eel bite
- Wash small, superficial wounds immediately with soap and water.
- Put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding.
- Apply antibacterial ointment and cover with a sterile bandage.
- Take an at-home pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).
- Call your doctor as quickly as possible to determine if further treatment is needed.
Moray eels are mostly found in tropical oceans, but also thrive in temperate water. They’re also a relatively popular fish for public aquariums and fish tanks in homes.
Many moray eel bites occur at home to people who put their hands into fish tanks while:
- feeding fish
- cleaning tanks
- replacing objects in the tank
Use caution whenever handling eels at home.
In the wild, moray eels aren’t inherently dangerous. They’re not usually found near the shore and don’t pose a big threat to people wading in shallow surf.
Since they are nocturnal feeders, you’re also less likely to see them in open water during daylight hours.
This nocturnal species is not overly aggressive. But they may be quick to bite if threatened or frightened. They may also bite if they’re disturbed in their natural habitats in:
- underwater crevices
- coral reefs
- craggy rocks
People who spend a lot of time in or near water are more likely to get bitten.
The following people may be more likely to experience a moray eel bite underwater if they disturb an eel’s habitat:
- deep-sea divers
- coral reef divers
People who go fishing may get bitten by handling moray eels caught in fishing nets.
Deeper, more serious bites require immediate medical attention. In some instances, stitches or other forms of wound care, including surgery, may be needed.
Broken moray eel teeth may remain in the wound. These also need to be removed in order to prevent:
- further harm
Get emergency medical attention if you have a large bite, and attempt to stop the bleeding with pressure until you arrive for treatment.
Any signs of allergic reaction, such as swelling or difficulty breathing, also require immediate medical help.
Unless your bite is treated quickly with antibiotics, a secondary infection may occur. Septicemia, a serious blood stream infection, may also occur.
Bacteria in the water where you’re bitten can also cause infection in the wound. Most of these bacterial infections can be avoided with oral antibiotics or topical antibiotics.
The injury should be monitored by your doctor until it is completely healed. Your doctor may also request a water sample to test for bacteria present in the water.
Allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, can result from moray eel bites. Call 911 immediately if you experience symptoms of anaphylactic shock.
Deep bites that cause severe damage to bone or tissue may require surgical removal of nearby parts of the body or severely injured fingers, toes, or other limbs. Loss of limb function may also occur, but these complications are rare.
In general, only the following professionals should handle moray eels, especially larger species that are native to the ocean:
- trained aquarium staff
- educated moray eel specialists
- experienced marine fieldworkers, such as researchers or biologists
Moray eels are often found in rock formations and coral reefs, so try to avoid physical contact with craggy rocks and other underwater structures when you’re diving or snorkeling.
When on or around rocky surf, do your best to avoid using rocky formations as handholds to lower your risk of disturbing an eel habitat. If you see a moray eel, do not agitate it or lure it to you for any reason.
If you keep moray eels in your fish tank, never attempt to hand-feed them or put your hands into the tank. Long tools are available for tank care and cleaning to help you avoid getting bitten.
Moray eels have been known to clamp down on their prey. If you’ve been bitten, don’t attempt to yank or pull away from the eel. This may deepen or lengthen a laceration wound.
Moray eels aren’t poisonous — the most common complication from a moray eel bite is infection. More serious bites may require stitches, and some can cause long-term injury like the loss of a digit or body part.
Try to avoid spending too much time near known eel habitats and keep your distance if you spot one. And don’t hand-feed an eel at home. Follow all precautions for keeping an eel in a fish tank at home.