Hunting Snipe

October 8, 2023
By Damond Benningfield

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Slender snipe eels are found in the open ocean. They are characterized by their long, slender bodies, large eyes, and beak-like jaws with inward pointing teeth that catch small crustaceans. Credit: Sandra Raredon/Smithsonian Institution

The slender snipe eel doesn’t look like a fish at all. Instead, it looks like a long shoelace attached to the head and beak of a skinny duck. But that shoelace is bony, because the eel’s backbone has more vertebrae than any other animal on Earth—an average of about 750.

Slender snipe eels are one of nine species of snipe eels, which are found in warmer waters all around the planet. They live in the open ocean, away from land. Most are found at depths of 1,000 to 2,000 feet, but some have been recorded more than two miles deep.

The slender snipe eel reaches lengths of up to about five feet. But it’s so slender that it weighs only a few ounces. A typical lifespan might be a decade or so.

The snipe eel’s head is thicker than the rest of its body, and resembles the head of a duck. It holds large eyes, which allow the critter to see at depths where there’s little light. The head ends in a long beak that curves upward at the tip. It’s lined with tiny but sharp teeth.

Biologists don’t know much about the eel’s habits because it’s rarely seen or caught. But they suspect that it feeds by sweeping its head back and forth. Its teeth occasionally snag the antenna of a shrimp or other small crustacean. The eel pulls in the prey, and its teeth, which point inward, keep the unlucky critter from swimming back out. Males lose their teeth as they mature, and their jaws get smaller—making the slender snipe eel look even more slender.