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January 2022

The one that got away

What is this skull? It was found on Ocean Beach, North Stradbroke Island.

Answer

Partial skull of a Pike Eel. The front of the skull is on the left. Photo: Miley Stevenson. Dorsal (top) view of the skull. Photo: Miley Stevenson. Ventral (bottom) view of the skull. Note the sockets for the vomerine teeth. Photo: Miley Stevenson. Close-up of the vomerine teeth. Photo: Miley Stevenson. Pike Eel. Photo: Bruce Cowell, QM.

Our ichthyologist has examined the fish skull you brought in for identification. He has determined it to be a Pike Eel (Muraenesox bagio). These fish have long, slender heads, and mouths filled with sharp teeth. Remarkably, the large teeth visible in the specimen aren’t actually part of the jaws, but are attached to the palate. Teeth in that location are called ‘vomerine teeth’. When intact, the skull would have sported now-missing long conical teeth at the front (“All the better to pierce you with”) along with the blade-like vomerine teeth (“All the better to slice you with”). Pike Eels feed on smaller fishes and crustaceans, so sharp teeth are a useful adaptation for tackling slippery prey. They are mostly active at night, hunting near the sea floor in estuaries and coastal waters less than 100 metres deep.

The bones in the skulls of mammals are fused together in adults so they tend to remain intact when the flesh is removed. However, the skulls of fishes are composed of numerous loosely articulated bones. This means that when the fish dies the skull tends to rapidly fall apart. Fish skulls are rarely found in one piece. Identifying bones from fish skulls can therefore be rather tricky. Museums house large collections of comparative material (in this case, carefully curated fish skeletons) to aid with identification of isolated bones. Your Pike Eel skull is actually bigger than any in our comparative collection, and must have come from a real whopper of an eel!

The Wild Guide to Moreton Bay states that “Large Pike Eels become aggressive and difficult to avoid when pulled aboard a small boat”, an observation that we suspect came at some expense.

Beach-washed remains of fishes can have bizarre appearances, and the Queensland Museum is often contacted to identify them. You can see some other examples here, here and here.

Want to know more? Our Discovery Centre is a free service open seven days per week, with experts ready to answer your questions. You can phone, write, contact us via our website or pop in. If we don’t know the answer we will try to find out for you.

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