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What is a Gulper Eel?

J.L. Drede
J.L. Drede

The gulper eel is an order of ray-finned fish and not actually an eel. A deep sea fish, the species of the gulper eel family have been known to dwell 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) below sea level. There are several species in the gulper eel family, which has the scientific name saccopharyngiformes, but the most well-known is the umbrella mouth pelican eel. Because it primarily lives deep on the ocean floor it is rarely seen by man. The rare times it has been encountered is usually when it is accidentally caught in fishing nets. It has been found in oceans around the world.

The gulper has a long, slender body that can grow up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length. More notable than its long tail however is its gigantic mouth that is often bigger than the rest of the fish itself. It resembles the mouth of a pelican, leading many to call the fish the pelican eel.


The mouth of the fish is loosely-hinged so it can open very wide, almost like a snake's mouth or a net. The gulper eel can use this gigantic mouth to catch prey much larger than itself. Since it lives in the deep sea, prey can be scarce, so it has developed a diverse diet. It is believed that the eel primarily eats small crustaceans, fish and cephalopods. Despite its fearsome appearance, the mouth of this ray-finned fish is very weak. It has to swallow prey whole. The stomach of the fish can grow rapidly to accommodate for large meals.

Like many other types of eels and fish who live deep on the ocean floor, the gulper eel is bioluminescent. The tail of the fish emits a bright red glow that is used like a lure to attract its prey. The rest of the fish is dark black, helping it conceal itself from deep sea predators such as lancet fish. The lack of light in the deep sea has made its eyes nearly useless. It is believed by some researches that the tiny bead-like eyes of the fish are used mostly to detect subtle changes in light that it can detect as movement.

Because of its deep habitat very little is known about gulper eel populations or breeding habits. It is thought by some scientists that the male of the species, with its large olfactory organ, has a very keen sense of smell that allows it to sniff out potential mates. After breeding the male of the species most likely dies.

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Discussion Comments


Thank you for this info. It is helping me with my report about the gulper eel.

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