7 Ribbon Eel Facts: They Change Their Colors and Gender When Getting Older

The ribbon eel or the leaf-nosed moray eel is an interesting species. They have unique life cycles that include not only three distinct color phases, but also full sexual transformations! Here are some fascinating facts about ribbon eels that may drop your jaw!

Ribbon eel
Scientific name: Rhinomuraena quaesita
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Anguilliformes
Genus: Rhinomuraena
Family: Muraenidae

1. The ribbon eel changes color when it grows up

The ribbon eel also called the blue ribbon eel is a species of moray eel. It has a striking appearance, with a pointed head, expanded fan-like nasal apertures, and protrusion on the lower jaw. Their dorsal fin covers the length of their body. This species lacks lack pectoral and ventral fins.

One of the special things about these eels is that their look changes over time. They can be transparent, black, blue, or yellow depending on their phase of development.

You can see through eel larvae

The ribbon eel larvae are translucent, whereas a juvenile has a black body and a yellow dorsal fin. When fully grown (about 60 cm), it changes to a dazzling blue with golden highlights around the eyes, mouth, and dorsal fin.

They switch colors again when they reach roughly 90 cm. At this time, its whole body is yellow, occasionally with a blue-green shade on the lower part.

Having the same characteristics and coloration, these eels may look identical.

A male ribbon eel is swimming
Ribbon eels resemble the Chinese mythical beast – the dragon.

Adult males range in size from 25-36 inches (63-91 cm), while females are bigger. They can be up to 52 inches (132 cm). With these sizes, they belong to the medium group of moray eel species.

Like other moray eels, ribbon eels don’t have scales. That’s why they produce mucus over their skin.

2. Natural habitat

The ribbon eel lives in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. They inhabit lagoons and seaside reefs in locations, such as Africa, Australia, Japan, etc. They are typically found at depths ranging from 12 to 30 meters.

Ribbon moray eels mostly thrive in healthy coral reefs, but they can survive on degraded reefs with mostly sand and gravel on the bottom.

Typically, you can only see their head and upper body emerge and move around. This is due to the fact that they dwell burrowing in the sand and mud and hiding beneath rocks and in cracks. It’s extremely hard to see a full ribbon eel.

Fact: This eel’s population size is unknown. The IUCN Red List, however, rates it as Least Concern species.  

3. They can bite you

Ribbon eels have a tendency to keep their heads out of their caves or mud holes, while their bodies sway around. They do not relocate and can spend years in the same location. Males are not territorial, so two males usually live together for extended periods of time. The young lives a solitary life.

To communicate, they use touch and chemical stimulus. The eels will emit the chemical into the water, then other ribbon eels recognize it and read it by generating a response. The noise of the eels is a high-pitched click that lasts a few seconds.

They are usually thought to be aggressive for this maner

If you happen to see a ribbon eel, or any moray eel, you’ll see them constantly open and close their mouth. This is not the threatening behavior as many people thought. It’s just the way these eels breathe.

Thanks to the small circular gills positioned on the back of the mouth, these species can close and open their mouths to let enough water pass over their gills.

Though this behavior is not dangerous, you shouldn’t get too close to them. Normally, the eels will withdraw into their cave. But if they feel threatened, they will bite you. You can bleed severely from the bite.



4. They move like waving ribbon

It’s very hard to see ribbon eels swimming in the open. If they do, it’s a quite fascinating sight to see. These long thin eels move in a zig-zag manner, like a flowing ribbon through the air.

Because of their thin body, these eels can easily vanish into a minor crack in a coral reef. With this ability, along with their speed, they can easily avoid predators.

5. Diet

These eels are carnivorous species that mostly feed on tiny fish. Their diet is made up of small fish and shrimp. Their food must be alive because they have no interest in dead prey.

To hunt, ribbon eels will leave their hiding places at night. Or, they will stay where they are and wait for the prey to come close to them. To do the second strategy, the eels will choose to stay in places where there are a significant number of cardinal fish or sweepers.

The eel usually stays in the cave to catch food

Due to weak vision, the species use their superb sense of smell to find their prey. Their prominent nostrils not only detect water vibrations, but their flared shape also draws prey.

After determining the target fish, ribbon eels will silently stretch themselves out of the hole and move closer and closer to them. Then they dash at the prey with their little yet finely pointed teeth.

With the special structure of the eel’s teeth, not many preys can escape after being caught. These species have two more rows of teeth going down the center of the roof of their mouth (pharyngeal jaws). These teeth help the eels cling to prey and prevent it from fleeing.

The eels use their outer teeth to latch onto the prey. Then they push their pharyngeal jaws forward to grip and pull the prey into their stomach. Moray eels are the only fish that do this.

Bigger fish, barracudas, and other moray eel species are ribbon eels’ predators.

6. They change sex during their lifetime

Ribbon eels typically mate during periods of high water temperature. The breeding starts with the male and female twist their bodies together. The female typically lays 4 eggs with leaf shape, and the male produces sperm to fertilize them.

One month later, the female dies. These eggs drift in the water for 8 weeks before hatching. The newly hatched are larvae and it has transparent bodies. All of these eels are male.

They quickly develop into juveniles, having black bodies with yellow dorsal fins. After a while, they are bigger with electric blue coloration and striking yellow dorsal fin. At this point, these males reach sexual maturity.

When growing to the size of 90 centimeters, the eels turn yellow. This is the time they change their gender from male to female. They can lay eggs from now on. The weird thing about them is that their reproductive organs and kidneys are uniquely located behind the anus.

To know more about Fish that change gender, you may read some of our articles below:

These long species’ lifespan is surprisingly long. They can live up to approximately 20 years in the wild. However, their life expectancy in captivity is very short, within a month.

7. They do not make good pets

Ribbon eels don’t make good pets for some reasons below:

– They can’t stand the transportation and can get distressed.

– They are quite picky. They don’t like and don’t eat processed food or dead fish. They eventually stop eating and end up dying.

– These intelligent creatures will flee from the tank when having a chance.

These fish need to live in the ocean. Despite all of these reasons, people still keep them in the aquarium. If you consider purchasing one, you should research first to know how to keep ribbon eels alive.

You can read the ribbon eel care instructions here to know how to set up the tank, how to feed them, the price, and where to buy them.

8. Ribbon Eel – Jigsaw Animal Puzzle


  • Ribbon Eel-Facts Video and Photographs – https://seaunseen.com/ribbon-eel/
  • Interesting Facts About the Ribbon Eel – https://animals.mom.com/interesting-ribbon-eel-4353.html

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