Alien Eels, Pufferfish, and Other Novelties

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The bloggers here at Scienceblogs all have other professional lives–professors, doctors, software engineers, and so on. My own line of work as a science writer can make blogging a bit awkward every now and then. Take, for instance, an article I wrote for tomorrow’s New York Times about moray eels. It turns out that they have bizarre jaws hidden in their throats that catapult forward into their mouth to grab prey.

If you read other blogs at Scienceblogs, this may sound like slightly old news. That’s because the paper describing this research came out on Wednesday in the journal Nature, and was promptly described in a couple excellent blog posts–one at Neurophilosophy and one at Pharyngula. The Times’s science section doesn’t come out till Tuesday, so I’ve kept quiet.

One reason I find this story so cool–beyond the obvious weirdness–is that the scientists who discovered the hidden jaws have been thinking carefully about how the jaws evolved. This is par for the course for one of the co-authors, Peter Wainwright, who has been studying the evolution of new traits for a long time now in fish. In fact, I wrote about some of his work long ago in 1997 in Discover–an elegant study of the pufferfish, and how it evolved from much more ordinary animals.

In any case, I hope this lag been worth the wait. I took the extra time to interview the two scientists who discovered the hidden jaws, much to their own surprise. And it was also fun to give a call to H.R. Giger, the artist who designed the monster from the Alien movies, which had moray eel jaws almost three decades before anyone knew moray eels had them.