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Concealed Weapon: Eels' Second Set of Teeth

Scientists in California have reported that moray eels have a set of teeth within a second set of jaws, called the pharyngeal jaws, that help them capture their prey.

Once the moray eel secures its prey with its first set of jaws, the pharyngeal jaws reach up from its throat, grabbing and pulling the prey down through its esophagus.

Rita Mehta is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California Davis who studies the evolution of diversity in eel feeding behavior.

Mehta used a slow-motion video camera to record a moray feeding, and she saw the pharyngeal jaws peek forward.

When Mehta examined the moray's jaws, she was surprised by their range of motion.

"What we discovered is that the pharyngeal jaws of moray's have the greatest mobility of any pharyngeal jaws ever documented," Mehta says.

Mark Westneat is curator of zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago. He also studies fish feeding behaviors and he says it's common for fish to have a pharyngeal jaw when they lack teeth used for grinding food.

But Westneat says the moray eel's pharyngeal jaw is somewhat different.

"Having a jaw in your throat that has long, recurved, canine teeth — and can actually shoot out of your throat into your mouth, grab a fish or something, and pull it down the throat — is highly unusual," he says.

But which set of teeth should be feared the most?

"Oh, man, that's tough, the front ones are really long and sharp, too," Mehta says. "I'd be afraid of both."

Mehta reports her findings in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

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Joe Palca
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.