Despite their name, garden eels are not your garden-variety eels. In fact, from a distance, they don’t look like eels at all. Their strategy of reaching out of burrows on the ocean floor and swaying in the current makes them look more like blades of seagrass. But a closer look reveals the pouty face and wide eyes of a sea critter that can be classified as … pretty darn cute.
Garden eels are part of the subfamily Heterochongrinae, which includes about 35 species. They’re found in warm waters all over the world, although the majority of species are found in the Indo-Pacific region.
Their strategy of “planting” themselves in the sea floor is an unusual adaptation. Other eels swim freely to capture their prey. Although garden eels can swim freely, they choose instead to burrow into the sand. They anchor themselves to the hole by secreting a paste that sticks to the sides of the burrow. Then they emerge, drifting back and forth, feeding on plankton that passes by.
They don’t often leave their holes—it’s a pretty good set up! But during mating season, they move their burrows closer together to be near a mate. When it comes time to mate, they stretch out and intertwine their bodies with their partner, all while leaving their tails secured in their respected holes.
Garden eels can live in groups in the thousands, but good luck seeing it for yourself. Garden eels are painfully shy, and are likely to dart back into their burrows before you can get close enough to tell they are garden eels.
You might have more luck seeing them at an aquarium, where they have become accustomed to human presence. Although thanks to COVID-19, some garden eels aren’t seeing many people around! One aquarium in Japan put out a call to ocean lovers to please video chat their resident garden eels, who were becoming more shy without their regular visitors. According to a report from Lonely Planet, visitors were asked to put their faces close to camera and shake it back and forth. And now we can add “Facetiming with eels” as an unexpected activity in quarantine!