Field of Science

A Parasitic Eel?

The following post was inspired by an e-mail that I was sent recently by Sebastian Marquez. He told me about a friend of his catching a trevally when fishing, then cutting it open to find a snake eel inside the body cavity (but outside the stomach), wrapped around the trevally's internal organs. According to Sebastian, the lead suspicion for what had happened was that the eel had somehow burst out of the trevally's stomach before it was caught, and he wanted to know if I'd ever heard of anything similar. I didn't have an explanation for him, but his story did get me thinking about the snub-nosed eel.

Snub-nosed eel Simenchelys parasitica, from Jordan (1907).

The snub-nose eel Simenchelys parasitica is a small deep-sea eel, about 20 to 35 centimetres long. It has attracted note by being found a number of times burrowed into the body cavity of larger fishes with perhaps the most renowned case being two juveniles that were found nested inside the heart of a mako shark. This lead to the description of S. parasitica as an endoparasite (hence the species name). However, acceptance of this tag has been far from universal. The snub-nosed eel has been caught free-living more regularly than it has been found in other fish and because of its deep-sea habitat it has never been observed in life. An alternative suggestion has been that Simenchelys is normally a scavenger; because many of its recorded 'hosts' have been collected through non-targeted methods such as trawls, it is not impossible that the snub-nosed eels may have burrowed into their body cavity after they were already deceased.

It was with this conundrum in mind that the cranial anatomy of the snub-nosed eel was described by Eagderi et al. (2016). The jaws of Simenchelys are relatively short and muscular (hence its 'snub nose'). It also has teeth arranged in such a way that they form an even cutting edge (in contrast to the more spaced and uneven teeth of other eels). Eadgeri et al. came to the conclusion that the snub-nosed eel probably feeds by biting out plugs of flesh, in a similar manner to a cookie-cutter shark. Simenchelys also resembles a cookie-cutter in having large, fleshy lips that are probably used to form a seal between jaws and food source. A large hyoid ('tongue') apparatus probably works to provide suction to maintain the seal. The snub-nosed eel may also rotate while biting, a behaviour known from both cookie-cutters and other eels.

So is Simenchelys a parasite? It is probably not a habitual endoparasite, lacking as it does any clear adaptations to the endoparasitic lifestyle. There are fish that could be described as ectoparasites, in that they habitually feed on live animals larger than themselves in a manner that does not normally lead to the host's death. The cookie-cutter is one such fish; another is the candiru Vandellia cirrhosa, a small freshwater catfish from the Amazon basin that feeds on blood from the gills of other fish. It is possible that the snub-nosed eel could have a similar lifestyle to one of these. However, recorded evidence of its habits is even more consistent with scavengers such as hagfish and the candiru-açu Cetopsis candiru (another South American catfish) that tear flesh from the submerged bodies of dead animals, and may often burrow their way into the corpse's body cavity as they do so.

Of course, the two modes of feeding are not mutually exclusive. The only difference between predator and parasite in this scenario is whether the attacked animal is alive or dead, and the thing about flesh-feeders is that they're not always picky. A habitual scavenger may easily choose the opportunity to take a nibble from a still-living host, especially is said host is in some way incapacited (as a result of being swept up by a trawl, for instance). The snub-nosed eel may not be a habitual parasite, but it may be an opportunistic one.


Eagderi, S., J. Christiaens, M. Boone, P. Jacobs & D. Adriaens. 2016. Functional morphology of the feeding apparatus in Simenchelys parasitica (Simenchelyinae: Synaphobranchidae), an alleged parasitic eel. Copeia 104 (2): 421–439.


  1. Cases of "pseudoparasitism" involving snake eels are not uncommon, I've even found one doing necropsies of aquarium specimens. Here is a recent paper on the topic:

  2. Hey Chris, here's the picture (not sure if the link will work from facebook):


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