Ribbon Eels

Ribbon eels can prove difficult to keep in the home aquarium.

Q. I am looking for information on the care of ribbon eels. I have seen them in local aquarium stores and have heard varying reports on their hardiness. One store tells me that they can be kept if maintained by themselves and fed live food. I would really like to keep one but want to make sure I know what I’m doing before I buy it. Thank you in advance.
William Spick
Miami, Fla.

A. Unfortunately, the blue ribbon eel (Rhinomuraena quaesita) is a difficult fish to keep. It is, however, one of the most interesting of the moray species. This eel has several unique characteristics that have led some to suggest it should placed in its own family, the Rhinomuraenidae. It has an extremely long, thin body with broad dorsal and anal fins that give it a ribbonlike appearance. Other features include delicate jaws, fan-shaped nasal extensions, one barbel-like filament on the upper jaw and several on the lower jaw. Finally, its kidneys and most of the reproductive organs are situated to the rear of the anus. This last unique characteristic has not been reported in any other vertebrate.

Ribbon eels make striking display animals for the home aquarium, but in some captive setups they may refuse to feed. There are several things you can do to help initiate feeding in a stubborn ribbon eel. First, provide adequate hiding places, so your eel feels secure. One way to do this is to place about 3 inches of live sand and an inch of coral rubble on the aquarium bottom, and a mound of live rock on one side of the tank or against the back glass. This way, you will provide sand and coral rubble for the eel to burrow under or a coral head of live rock for it to hide within.

I have also seen ribbon eels adopt artificial caves as refuges. You can create a cave by using silicone sealant to attach crushed coral and chunks of rubble to a fish bowl, which can then be laid on its side on the aquarium bottom. A long piece of PVC pipe that is no more than twice the diameter of the eel may also serve as a sanctuary for these animals. Place a 45-degree elbow on one end of the pipe, cap the other end, and bury the pipe under the substrate.

Live feeder fish are also necessary to entice a ribbon eel to feed – add a dozen or more mollies or guppies to your tank. In order to increase the concentration of potential prey in the vicinity of an eel, house it in a smaller tank (perhaps 30 gallons) or partition off the eel’s preferred hiding place if it is being kept in a larger aquarium. It is also easier to feed a ribbon eel if it is not housed with voracious carnivores that will snap up feeder fish before the eel is enticed to feed. In fact, I recommend that you keep your ribbon eel in a tank of its own or with another member of its species. Some ribbon eels can be trained to take small pieces of fish impaled on the sharpened end of a piece of rigid air line tubing or to take food off the aquarium bottom (but these are the rare exceptions). When using a feeding stick, present the food in a non-threatening manner. Do not shove the food in the eel’s face; instead, move the food around the tank as if it were natural prey.

Be aware that ribbon eels are especially proficient at finding small cracks and holes in the aquarium back stripping to exit through. They will also swim up siphon tubes that lack strainer caps.  

While it is possible to keep ribbon eels, you need to be willing to give the eel special care. I suggest selecting one of the more durable moray species, unless you have the right captive setup.

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Saltwater Fish

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