Snake Eels: The Safe Moray Alternative?

Snake Eels
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Myrichthys Colubrinus - The Banded Snake Eel

Snake eels are a more rarely seen but available eel in the aquarium hobby but are they a viable option for someone looking for a more unusual eel?


Quick Guide​

  • Care Level: Moderate
  • Aggression: Semi-Aggressive
  • Max Size: 3 to 4 ft (90 to 120cm)
  • Minimum Tank: 90 gallon
  • Lifespan: Unknown but probably decades
  • Most Active: Night at first but can be trained to be diurnal
  • Diet: Small crustaceans and mollusks

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Myrichthys Ocellatus - The Goldspotted Snake Eel

Taxonomy​


Snake eels are true Eels from the order Anguilliformes like morays but are actually from the family Ophichthidae from the congroidei sub-order. Morays are from the Muraenidae family of the sub-order Muraenoidei. That is to say that snake eels and morays are not that closely related though they are both eels. The most closely related eel to snakes in this hobby are in fact garden eels of the family Heterocongrinae.
That being said, all the snake eels that I know of in the hobby are from the genus Myrichthys which as far as I can tell means “male moray”. This is most likely referring to their similar size, habitat, and behavior. Especially moray eels in the genus Echidna (pebble toothed morays). There are eleven known species of which I own two, Myrichthys colubrinus and Myrichthys ocellatus, and I have seen one other species for sale, Myrichthys pardalis, the Leopard Snake Eel.

In the Wild​

Snake eels live in the tropical oceans of the Indian, Pacific, and western Atlantic oceans. These eels are burrowers who both sleep and hide in the sand or mud and will also hunt there too. They’re nostrils are pointed downward allowing them to swim above the bottom smelling for food. When they find it they will dive into the sand and try to grab their prey. They have relatively weak jaws and very dull teeth (even compared to pebble toothed morays) which means they cannot catch or kill the fish nor tough crustaceans that live openly in the ocean but instead go for softer and slower prey that is hidden in places most predators can’t find or get to. This is also why they’re vision is awful as they have no need for it when hunting in the sand at night instead they rely almost completely on smell and feel. To avoid predation most snake eels will hide in the sand however the banded or harlequin snake eel Myrichthys colubrinus has evolved to look like the very venomous sea snakes and kraits that it shares its habitat with. Snake eels however are not venomous themselves. Like many eels, reproduction is not well known.


Credit: Fab Dive


In the Aquarium​


Aquarium: Snake eels require good water condi
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tions at all of the standard values. They will suffer from osmotic shock so acclimation is important if possible. These eels require either a soft sand bed/mud or some pvc pipe on the bottom. They may spend most of their time in the sand or pipe at first but will gain confidence over time and be more active. When active they will peruse the bottom or take to swimming in the open. To fully enjoy your eel a bigger tank is better as they will be more able to swim. I have never had one escape the tank or attempt to do so but that is no guarantee they won’t do so.

Feeding: Diet wise you can feed live or fresh/frozen but probably a combo is best. They will eat live shrimp like ghost shrimp if small enough but will not eat live feeder fish as they cannot catch them. As for prepared food; krill, squid, and other soft seafood is best. All food must be small enough for the eels to swallow whole. They should be fed every day when younger but reduced while they age to every 3 days when near full size. They are less likely to overeat than morays but will throw up if overfed. Food can be fed with tongs or a stick or hands, buried in the sand for them to find, or just dropped in if your eel is a particularly aggressive eater. Due to their lack of vision you may need patience when target feeding them.

Tank Mates: These eels are probably fish safe though I would not trust them with small burrowing fish like small gobies. They are probably not shrimp safe. Treat them like you would a pebble toothed eel. If you can't get a feeding response they do benefit from having other eels who will start a sort of feeding frenzy that will encourage it to eat. They can be bullied and have soft skin only slightly protected by a slime coating. Therefore I would avoid larger and aggressive puffers, triggers, sharks and other similarly aggressive fish. However for the most part these are very fish friendly fish.


Handling: This is an eel you can interact with. They have very dull teeth and weak jaws so even a big one could only cause minor pain and are unlikely to break the skin. In my experience they can be hard to feed sometimes and hand feeding may be the best option. Excessive touching however will ham their slime coating and could damage the eel.


Difficulty: These eels can be quite easy or hard and this comes mainly down to the species and individual eel. My gold-spotted, Myrichthys ocellatus, is as easy as any fish I’ve owned, being tough and eating anything with no difficulty. My banded, Myrichthys colubrinus, is very different, being very sensitive to water quality and requiring very small and therefore numerous bits of seafood to be hand fed.

In Comparison​

If thinking about a snake eel it’s probably best to compare it to its closest behaviorally and far more common alternatives: echidna or pebble toothed moray eels such as the snowflake eel, Echidna nebulosa.
Behaviorally these are fairly similar in that they are mostly hidden most of the time but will leave their hidey holes occasionally, usually for food. The difference is that snake eels will burrow in the sand or in a pipe in the bottom while morays will prefer to hide under or behind rocks or in any pipe. When active they are roughly the same though morays are far more flexible and able to slip in and out of rocks and other obstacles while snakes seem to be the better swimmers though cannot bend their body nearly as much.
Echidna’s are known for their “dull” teeth and lack of a serious bite. From personal experience they’re bite is far worse than a snake eels. Or rather a snake eel bite is even less harmful than an echidna moray. They don’t seem to have teeth or if they do they are very dull and they’re jaws don’t seem to have very strong jaws either.
Both are known to be mostly fish safe but not crustacean safe and that is also my conclusion. I’d suggest that the snakes are more fish safe and only dangerous to unprotected crustaceans like smaller shrimp like cleaner shrimp due to the lesser bite.
Finally though both have poor vision, the snake eels is significantly worse.

Summary​

If you’re looking for an impressive and mostly reef safe eel or just something different this definitely something you should consider. Comparatively reef safe, less likely to escape, and with a different unique build these are great fish. I think the only real downside to them is the lack of information on keeping them. When researching mine The only care guide I found turned out to be fairly useless as it lacked basic understanding of how these animals live in the wild. One of the hardest things I had writing this was to do with how different my two eels are despite being from the same genus and of course having such a small sample size. Still I believe I have captured the essence of them and can help anyone considering getting one of these amazing beasts.
 
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Disclaimer: This was written with my limited experience with these eels and eels in general. In my past life I studied animals professionally and worked on educational outreach for wildlife conservation efforts in Africa. I used that when studying these animals to best theorize their behavior and needs but that can only go so far. I may well be wrong.

Thanks @lion king and @Chrisv. for the help
 

Chrisv.

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Disclaimer: This was written with my limited experience with these eels and eels in general. In my past life I studied animals professionally and worked on educational outreach for wildlife conservation efforts in Africa. I used that when studying these animals to best theorize their behavior and needs but that can only go so far. I may well be wrong.

Thanks @lion king and @Chrisv. for the help
Awesome synopsis! Thanks for posting this!

How are your eels doing?!
 

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Awesome synopsis! Thanks for posting this!

How are your eels doing?!
Great.
i think the banded is benefiting from having other eels as it’s eating and coming out more regularly. I read that “feeding frenzies” help get ribbons to eat and I think maybe the same is happening here.
 
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Amazing creature, although I bet they are even more of an escape artist than snowflakes.
I have a theory on why they may not be. I believe they hunt in soft sand and mud rather than around rocks and corals. Also that they live in deeper non-tidal habitats. For this reason I doubt they ever get stuck in or hunt in tidal pools. Thus they won’t try and escape. They seem to instantly turn away as soon as they’re noses breach as well. Also also they have a far smaller elasticity. While a moray can twist itself around itself a snake cannot. It would struggle to twist around a regular can from what I’ve seen.
 
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Thanks everyone. I’ve seen quite a few of these eels around recently and thought this may be useful. Also I can’t be the only one who wants the thrill of a sea snake without the actual danger and difficulty right??
 

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I have kept both the occelated and banded snake eels. I kept the occelated one for 5 years from about 20cm to fully grown, and the banded one for about 2 years. My FOWLR Red sea reefer split last year sometime, so gave them away at that stage. They were in my reef at one stage before that, the only fish I have seen disappear that I suspect them are sand living gobies, they don’t really bother anything else, even a dying wrasse they just swim over. They do add a lot of bioload, and irritate my jawfish, but in my experience they are very hardy.
Some pics:



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That ocel
I have kept both the occelated and banded snake eels. I kept the occelated one for 5 years from about 20cm to fully grown, and the banded one for about 2 years. My FOWLR Red sea reefer split last year sometime, so gave them away at that stage. They were in my reef at one stage before that, the only fish I have seen disappear that I suspect them are sand living gobies, they don’t really bother anything else, even a dying wrasse they just swim over. They do add a lot of bioload, and irritate my jawfish, but in my experience they are very hardy.
Some pics:
That ocellated is beautiful. Glad to see your observations match my suspicions. Of course if I got something wrong or omitted anything tell me. You seem to have a lot of experience with them.

Thanks for sharing!
 

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That ocel

That ocellated is beautiful. Glad to see your observations match my suspicions. Of course if I got something wrong or omitted anything tell me. You seem to have a lot of experience with them.

Thanks for sharing!
They are amazing creatures. I caught that occelated one in a tidal pool on our East Coast in 2017. I read up before that they are difficult to keep in my one book, so I added him to my 10 gallon coral qt instead of a full quarantine process. For the first month I didn't see it once, can't think a relatively big eel can disappear in a 10 gallon, but it stayed under the sand. I started feeding it by pushing clam meat into the sand against the front glass every evening, and the next morning it was gone. In the end after 5 years it was eating out of my hand, coming up to the surface to eat.
 
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They are amazing creatures. I caught that occelated one in a tidal pool on our East Coast in 2017. I read up before that they are difficult to keep in my one book, so I added him to my 10 gallon coral qt instead of a full quarantine process. For the first month I didn't see it once, can't think a relatively big eel can disappear in a 10 gallon, but it stayed under the sand. I started feeding it by pushing clam meat into the sand against the front glass every evening, and the next morning it was gone. In the end after 5 years it was eating out of my hand, coming up to the surface to eat.
I agree, not nearly as hard as they’re made out to be. Can be shy definitely. My banded will hide for days or weeks at a time. But my goldspotted is a bold and aggressive eater.
Just added it to the display and it immediately tried to kill my giant hermit crab.


Never seen it go after a fish though.
 

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I agree, not nearly as hard as they’re made out to be. Can be shy definitely. My banded will hide for days or weeks at a time. But my goldspotted is a bold and aggressive eater.
Just added it to the display and it immediately tried to kill my giant hermit crab.


Never seen it go after a fish though.

It's hard because it is different, the same with the creatures I keep. Most times it comes to feeding, and many times initial feeding. People that understand the differences in feeding, and here's the big point, and and willing to put the effort in, in the end they are not that difficult. The big point is, many people just will not put the effort in.
 
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It's hard because it is different, the same with the creatures I keep. Most times it comes to feeding, and many times initial feeding. People that understand the differences in feeding, and here's the big point, and and willing to put the effort in, in the end they are not that difficult. The big point is, many people just will not put the effort in.
Which is strange because the best thing about predators is either feeding them or, for live feeders, watching them hunt.
 

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Snake Eels
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Myrichthys Colubrinus - The Banded Snake Eel

Snake eels are a more rarely seen but available eel in the aquarium hobby but are they a viable option for someone looking for a more unusual eel?


Quick Guide​

  • Care Level: Moderate
  • Aggression: Semi-Aggressive
  • Max Size: 3 to 4 ft (90 to 120cm)
  • Minimum Tank: 90 gallon
  • Lifespan: Unknown but probably decades
  • Most Active: Night at first but can be trained to be diurnal
  • Diet: Small crustaceans and mollusks

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Myrichthys Ocellatus - The Goldspotted Snake Eel

Taxonomy​


Snake eels are true Eels from the order Anguilliformes like morays but are actually from the family Ophichthidae from the congroidei sub-order. Morays are from the Muraenidae family of the sub-order Muraenoidei. That is to say that snake eels and morays are not that closely related though they are both eels. The most closely related eel to snakes in this hobby are in fact garden eels of the family Heterocongrinae.
That being said, all the snake eels that I know of in the hobby are from the genus Myrichthys which as far as I can tell means “male moray”. This is most likely referring to their similar size, habitat, and behavior. Especially moray eels in the genus Echidna (pebble toothed morays). There are eleven known species of which I own two, Myrichthys colubrinus and Myrichthys ocellatus, and I have seen one other species for sale, Myrichthys pardalis, the Leopard Snake Eel.

In the Wild​

Snake eels live in the tropical oceans of the Indian, Pacific, and western Atlantic oceans. These eels are burrowers who both sleep and hide in the sand or mud and will also hunt there too. They’re nostrils are pointed downward allowing them to swim above the bottom smelling for food. When they find it they will dive into the sand and try to grab their prey. They have relatively weak jaws and very dull teeth (even compared to pebble toothed morays) which means they cannot catch or kill the fish nor tough crustaceans that live openly in the ocean but instead go for softer and slower prey that is hidden in places most predators can’t find or get to. This is also why they’re vision is awful as they have no need for it when hunting in the sand at night instead they rely almost completely on smell and feel. To avoid predation most snake eels will hide in the sand however the banded or harlequin snake eel Myrichthys colubrinus has evolved to look like the very venomous sea snakes and kraits that it shares its habitat with. Snake eels however are not venomous themselves. Like many eels, reproduction is not well known.


Credit: Fab Dive


In the Aquarium​


Aquarium: Snake eels require good water condi
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tions at all of the standard values. They will suffer from osmotic shock so acclimation is important if possible. These eels require either a soft sand bed/mud or some pvc pipe on the bottom. They may spend most of their time in the sand or pipe at first but will gain confidence over time and be more active. When active they will peruse the bottom or take to swimming in the open. To fully enjoy your eel a bigger tank is better as they will be more able to swim. I have never had one escape the tank or attempt to do so but that is no guarantee they won’t do so.

Feeding: Diet wise you can feed live or fresh/frozen but probably a combo is best. They will eat live shrimp like ghost shrimp if small enough but will not eat live feeder fish as they cannot catch them. As for prepared food; krill, squid, and other soft seafood is best. All food must be small enough for the eels to swallow whole. They should be fed every day when younger but reduced while they age to every 3 days when near full size. They are less likely to overeat than morays but will throw up if overfed. Food can be fed with tongs or a stick or hands, buried in the sand for them to find, or just dropped in if your eel is a particularly aggressive eater. Due to their lack of vision you may need patience when target feeding them.

Tank Mates: These eels are probably fish safe though I would not trust them with small burrowing fish like small gobies. They are probably not shrimp safe. Treat them like you would a pebble toothed eel. If you can't get a feeding response they do benefit from having other eels who will start a sort of feeding frenzy that will encourage it to eat. They can be bullied and have soft skin only slightly protected by a slime coating. Therefore I would avoid larger and aggressive puffers, triggers, sharks and other similarly aggressive fish. However for the most part these are very fish friendly fish.


Handling: This is an eel you can interact with. They have very dull teeth and weak jaws so even a big one could only cause minor pain and are unlikely to break the skin. In my experience they can be hard to feed sometimes and hand feeding may be the best option. Excessive touching however will ham their slime coating and could damage the eel.


Difficulty: These eels can be quite easy or hard and this comes mainly down to the species and individual eel. My gold-spotted, Myrichthys ocellatus, is as easy as any fish I’ve owned, being tough and eating anything with no difficulty. My banded, Myrichthys colubrinus, is very different, being very sensitive to water quality and requiring very small and therefore numerous bits of seafood to be hand fed.

In Comparison​

If thinking about a snake eel it’s probably best to compare it to its closest behaviorally and far more common alternatives: echidna or pebble toothed moray eels such as the snowflake eel, Echidna nebulosa.
Behaviorally these are fairly similar in that they are mostly hidden most of the time but will leave their hidey holes occasionally, usually for food. The difference is that snake eels will burrow in the sand or in a pipe in the bottom while morays will prefer to hide under or behind rocks or in any pipe. When active they are roughly the same though morays are far more flexible and able to slip in and out of rocks and other obstacles while snakes seem to be the better swimmers though cannot bend their body nearly as much.
Echidna’s are known for their “dull” teeth and lack of a serious bite. From personal experience they’re bite is far worse than a snake eels. Or rather a snake eel bite is even less harmful than an echidna moray. They don’t seem to have teeth or if they do they are very dull and they’re jaws don’t seem to have very strong jaws either.
Both are known to be mostly fish safe but not crustacean safe and that is also my conclusion. I’d suggest that the snakes are more fish safe and only dangerous to unprotected crustaceans like smaller shrimp like cleaner shrimp due to the lesser bite.
Finally though both have poor vision, the snake eels is significantly worse.

Summary​

If you’re looking for an impressive and mostly reef safe eel or just something different this definitely something you should consider. Comparatively reef safe, less likely to escape, and with a different unique build these are great fish. I think the only real downside to them is the lack of information on keeping them. When researching mine The only care guide I found turned out to be fairly useless as it lacked basic understanding of how these animals live in the wild. One of the hardest things I had writing this was to do with how different my two eels are despite being from the same genus and of course having such a small sample size. Still I believe I have captured the essence of them and can help anyone considering getting one of these amazing beasts.
I have kept snow flake eels for years they usually last four years more, and grow very quickly. I start them off with minnos then graduate them to live gold fish. they are blind so they use smell and feel to get their food. My daughter likes to watch slither eat. that's his name as the wife and daughter name all fish that come home. lol He has never tried to jump out the tank although he swims across the surface. He shares his tank with lionitis that's my six year old lion fish, as well as mohone who is a dog face puffer.
 
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I have kept snow flake eels for years they usually last four years more, and grow very quickly. I start them off with minnos then graduate them to live gold fish. they are blind so they use smell and feel to get their food. My daughter likes to watch slither eat. that's his name as the wife and daughter name all fish that come home. lol He has never tried to jump out the tank although he swims across the surface. He shares his tank with lionitis that's my six year old lion fish, as well as mohone who is a dog face puffer.
I love snowflake eels. I think they're underrated due to being very common as they are very pretty. However snowflakes are not snake eels they are moray eels of the echidna (pebble toothed) genus.
 

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Thanks for the write-up, I've been doing quite a bit of research and outside of a Golden Dwarf Moray (no longer available at a reasonable price) a snake eel may be the best alternative. However, they seem to be almost as difficult to find right now.

Anyone have vendor suggestions to source a banded snake eel? I've got a 150G with a 3-4" sandbed that should be a great home for one.
 
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Thanks for the write-up, I've been doing quite a bit of research and outside of a Golden Dwarf Moray (no longer available at a reasonable price) a snake eel may be the best alternative. However, they seem to be almost as difficult to find right now.

Anyone have vendor suggestions to source a banded snake eel? I've got a 150G with a 3-4" sandbed that should be a great home for one.

That is the major problem with them. My only suggestion is to ask your LFS. Mine was fairly good about finding some and I've seen 3 species in the last 6 months at LFS's. Their not uncommon just not as often collected as more common species.

This site appears to be selling what is definitely not a banded snake eel. https://azgardens.com/product/banded-snake-eel/ So You'll need to be wary of fakes too.
This site also has one but I know nothing about them so buy at your own risk I guess: https://violet-sea-fish-and-coral.myshopify.com/products/banded-snake-eel?variant=39717587091527

Divers den occasionally sells snake eels though its usually the relatively aggressive but easiest goldspotted.
 
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Does it matter to you whether your fish are captive-bred or wild caught?

  • I only buy captive bred fish.

    Votes: 50 13.3%
  • It matters, but I will buy either captive-bred or wild-caught.

    Votes: 280 74.5%
  • I think wild-caught fish are the better option.

    Votes: 5 1.3%
  • I don’t care where the fish were bred.

    Votes: 41 10.9%
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