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Roman slaves were fed to Moray eels

Posted in Fish, Nature, Sea, Wildlife on Wednesday, 2 January 2013

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This edited article about the Moray eel originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 801 published on 21st May 1977.

Moray eel, picture, image, illustration

Moray eel

Down through the watery, green gloom of a tropical sea plunges the lithe form of a diver . . . down into a sub-merged world glowing with strange coloured corals and swaying weeds. Small fishes brush past him as he glides through the water, a stream of silvered air-bubbles in his wake.

Without warning, from a dark opening in the reef ahead, a terrifying head appears. Rows of needle-sharp teeth gape in a powerful jaw. Black eyes glint viciously. A thick neck extends and contracts rhythmically. Slowly, the writhing form of a moray eel emerges from the hole. . . .

The diver gives a quick thrust with his feet and is gone upwards, churning the waters blindly in his haste to reach the safety of the surface and his boat again. . . .

Nothing sends a diver quicker to the surface than the appearance of a moray eel. This sinister, panther-like serpent can inflict powerful wounds upon the hands or feet of a laggardly diver. Its hooked teeth are made to grip and hang on to its prey, while its actual bite can set up bad infections.

The moray dwells chiefly in the coral reefs of Pacific waters from the Indian Ocean to Hawaii, although some types do exist in the Mediterranean sea. In the Pacific, only the shark is more feared than this member of the Muraenidae eel family.

Its appearance is truly that of a monster from the deep. Measuring up to 10 feet (3 metres) long in body, the wide jaws of its head open and shut constantly to display its teeth as it moves in search of prey among small fish. The stretching and contracting of its neck add to its ferocious look – although this in fact is the mechanism by which it breathes.

The contractions of neck and jaw pump water into the moray’s system for the extraction of oxygen for its breathing process. The water is pumped out again through uncovered gill-holes in its head.

The long, snake-like body of the moray has a ridge of fin along the spine which flickers like a fringe as the creature darts in and out of the dark holes which are its lair. Tough and scaleless, its skin can be mottled, striped or speckled. Most morays are yellow and black, but some species have variegated colours which give them a natural camouflage among the plants of coral reefs.

The moray eel will attack anything and anybody for no other reason than it is an aggressive and bad tempered creature.

An angry moray on the rampage is something with which to reckon. Fishermen who have captured such an eel which has then broken loose in their boat have been known to leap over-board rather than stay with the threshing, infuriated creature.
The Romans found the flesh of the moray tender and good to eat, according to records of their well-stocked fishponds. Unfortunately, they knew that this delicacy also found human beings tasty, and many a slave is supposed to have been threatened with death in the eel-pond until Caesar Augustus put a stop to any such practice.

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