Ask an Expert: Eel Nutrition 101 | South Carolina Aquarium

Ask an Expert: Eel Nutrition 101

Mar 11

Ask an Expert: Eel Nutrition 101

What do electric eels eat? Victoria, one of our members, asked this question through our Ask an Expert opportunity! While we don’t have electric eels on exhibit, we do have three resident eels at the Aquarium. Each species has its own dietary needs, so each gets a specially curated diet as part of the Charleston Coffee Roasters Nutritional Care Program.

Here at the South Carolina Aquarium, we have our green moray eel in the Great Ocean Tank, our freshwater American eel in our Swamp Snakes exhibit and our goldentail moray eel in our Invertebrates Exhibit. Let’s start with our green moray eel!

Green Moray Eel | Great Ocean Tank
Green moray eels are nocturnal, typically feeding and hunting at night. They also utilize a lie-and-wait method for capturing prey, which can be hard to accomplish in an environment with fast swimming predators (like barracuda, sharks and more). Because of this, we devised a special way of feeding them. Enter: PVC pipe and target feeding! It’s a bit hidden from view, but there are two PVC pipes located against the front left of the Great Ocean Tank (right around where you’ve likely spotted our eel during a visit). Five days a week, one of our staff or volunteers puts a weight on the end of a rope and attaches a fish to it, usually a mackerel, then drops it down into one of the six-foot-long pipes.

At night when they’re hungry, our eel will swim up into the pipe and retrieve the fish, tapping into their natural, wild behaviors. This is called target feeding, which means that an animal is trained to go to a certain spot to receive food based on cues and signals.

But let’s back up a minute. How did our moray eel know to go into the pipe for food? Believe it or not, this is a trained behavior. Our biologists set up specialized, one-on-one training sessions with the green moray eel and implemented a multi-step process with milestones along the way. Biologists worked with the eel to first train it to come to the top of the Great Ocean Tank to be target fed with tongs. After accomplishing this first milestone, our staff and volunteers then worked with our eel to train it to go to the PVC pipe for food in place of the tongs. Now, thanks to training, the green moray eel understands that the PVC pipe is their access to nutrition and food!

Freshwater American Eel | Swamp Snakes Exhibit
For our freshwater American eel, they receive a mix of smelt (fish from the Great Lakes) along with earthworms! With this diet, our eel receives the intake of vitamins and nutrients that they would normally receive in the wild. When the other animals in the same exhibit are fed, our freshwater American eel will show varying degrees of interest and activity. They can be target fed, but they will also choose food items that are deposited for all the animals in the tank. Animal care staff keep a close eye on our freshwater American eel to be sure they receive the right amount of food. Normally, this eel eats once or twice a week.

Goldentail Moray Eel | Invertebrate Exhibit (by Touch Tank)
Our goldentail moray eel has a similar nutritional care plan to our freshwater American eel, eating smelt in addition to shrimp, squid, clams, capelin (species of small fish) and live grass shrimp (a small species of shrimp found right here in Charleston). Currently, our goldentail moray eel is target fed five times a week. As they mature, they won’t eat quite as much because they won’t require as many nutrients and vitamins for growth.

The next time you visit the Aquarium, stop by the Great Ocean Tank, our Swamp Snakes exhibit and the Invertebrates exhibit by the Touch Tank to see if you can spot our eels!

Do you have another question for our experts?

Published March 11, 2022

Skip to content