Animal of the Month
June 2016

Name: Wolf eel (AKA The Old Man of the Sea)

Scientific Name: Anarrhichthys ocellatus

Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciformes
Family: Anarhichadidae
Genus: Anarrhichthys

Number of Species: 1
Size: Up to 8 feet long
Weight: 20-40 lbs

Characteristics: Blubbery, wrinkly head, and a very long body and tail. A single large dorsal fin runs from behind the head to the tip of the tail.
Color(s): Gray with black spots. Males are more whitish-gray, females are almost a charcoal-gray.
Behavior: Shy, often preferring to hide in their rocky dens. Seeks out a mate at four years old, will not spawn until seven years old.
Preferred Habitat: Under rocks and stony areas, diving up to 700 meters or more.
Range: The Pacific coast of North America, ranging from Baja up into Alaska.
Diet: Sea urchins, crabs, clams and fish
Lifespan: 28 years in captivity, unknown in the wild.

Status: Endangered

Sometimes referred to as the “Old Man of the Sea”, the wolf eel is not actually an eel. This fish is found in the Pacific coast of North America, ranging form Baja all the way to Alaska. They look awful strange with blubbery heads and long bodies, but it is important to try not to think of them as “ugly”. This is simply how their species has evolved, and every creature is beautiful in its own way.

Wolf eels can reach up to eight feet long. They are grey with black spots; the males are lighter in color and the females are darker in color. They are bottom feeders and thus they tend to stick close to rocks and reef-like areas. Don’t judge an animal just because it’s a bottom feeder; wolf eels are fierce predators with sharp teeth and a powerful bite. They are capable of crushing and consuming sea urchins down to the last spine. In addition, they also eat crabs and other fish, eating from the most common food supply available. Wolf eels have to watch out for predatory harbor seals. These fish can be found in more shallow waters, but also swim to depths of 700 meters or more!

Wolf eels will form mated pairs at about four years old, however the pair will not spawn until about seven years old. Spawning occurs usually around October, continuing into December. The male will butt his head against the female and then wrap himself around her. The male will fertilize the eggs as the female releases them, and she can release 10,000 eggs at a single time! The parents will then protect the eggs from predators for about 13-16 weeks. Though the pairs appear to stay mated for life, there have been observations of wolf eels switching mates. After the eggs hatch, the fry will swim among plankton.

Not too much is known about the wolf eel. The wolf eel is a reminder that there are still many mysteries to be solved in the animal kingdom. One thing is known for sure: despite the animal’s powerful bite, wolf eels are very friendly and curious toward humans. They will not bite unless they are harmed first, and they are known for peacefully swimming close to scuba divers!

Wolf eels are a part of the wolf fish family, all of which are endangered. Wolf eels are threatened in part by illegal harvesting. There is no legal trade of the wolf eel, however they are still sought for as food items and thus their numbers are stressed from illegal fishing. What’s more, they are also threatened rock-hopper trawls.

Fishermen who use this method are not targeting wolf eels, but rock-hopper trawling destroys the wolf eel’s primary habitat and eliminates or limits its food supply. Fortunately, scientists are stepping up and calling for a halt in this destructive form of fishing. A solution to this problem would be to use logline traps that do not damage the reefs. This is a situation where fishermen and the animals can both benefit; the animals can keep their habitat and the fishermen can continue to fish.

To learn more about these awesome “old men” of the sea, check out these awesome websites and organizations:

Rarerocks.com, Wolf Eel Page—General information about the wolf eel.

"The Marine Detective, “Wolf-Eel – No Ugly Fish!”—A blog by marine biologist Jackie Hildering. In this article she defends the wolf eel in an attempt to persuade people that it is not an “ugly” creature.

“The Wolf Eel”—Watch this video by the Nature Conservancy to see the wolf eels in their natural habitat!

North American Native Fishes Association, Wolf Eel page—An organization dedicated to study, conserve and educate others about the native fishes of North America.


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