Published On: Thu, Mar 28th, 2019

Gulper Eel – Eurpharynx pelecanoides – By Anthony Harris

Gulper Eel – Eurpharynx pelecanoides – Creature From The Deep – Also known as the Pelican Eel

By Anthony Harris of the Otago Museum

Gulper Eel - Eurpharynx pelecanoides

Gulper Eel – Eurpharynx pelecanoides.

“A strange creature resembling a huge set of jaws with a fish attached has washed up over there last Saturday,” said a man from Purakanui Beach, near Dunedin, back in August 1994. Walking with him I saw the remains of a gulper eel – perhaps the strangest and most grotesque of all fish.

Gulper eels Eurpharynx pelecanoides, built around their mouths, comprise little more than a gigantic set of distensible jaws and a tail. The tiny eyes are set well forward on top of the upper jaw, while the pectoral fin and gill slits are positioned immediately behind the jaws. A bulb at the tip of its tail glows. The gulper eels overall colour is black. 

The upper and lower jaws are only loosely connected so that the mouth can open in an enormous gape enabling the gulper to swallow fishes much larger than itself. This requirement results from the scarcity of food in the ocean depths where the gulper lives. Every rare item of food must be exploited.

In addition to the fish, gulpers eat deep water plankton, which often consists of specialised shrimps and jellyfish.

Other than two small fangs in the lower jaw gulpers have no teeth. The gulper eels huge mouth likely acts as a plankton net sifting a large volume of water for anything edible. 

Gulpers live in the mid-water of oceans at depths of 1500 to 3000 metres. At such depths, there is no light and the water is inky black. The light bulb on the tip of the tail probably functions as a device that causes predators to snap at the tail (which can be regrown after the fish has escaped) rather than biting a more vulnerable part.

Deep-water fish often wash up on Dunedin beaches, a result of the continental shelf being so close to the east Otago coast.

New Zealand Sea Fishes

Video: Gulper eel, Eurpharynx pelecanoides, or the pelican eel, also called the umbrella mouth gulper. I think these pictures, especially of the gills, are unique. This one is from a cod-end trawl off California at a depth of 600 metres but apparently found much deeper too.

About the Author

- Fishingmag.co.nz website editor.

New Zealand Sea Fishes