Banded Snake Eel

Banded Snake Eel, Barred Snake Eel, Harlequin Eel, Ringed Snake Eel

Family: Ophichthidae Picture of a Banded Snake EelMyrichthys colubrinusPhoto © Animal-World: Courtesy David Brough
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Do they come up for air? I think I have baby ones in my tank, but they are in a hole in the rock always, do they live there ever?  Lexi

Snake eels from the Myrichthys genus, are like the janitors of the reef, eating only dead fish or shrimp, like Nassarius Snails.  They happily eat thawed silversides and krill, need sand, and their smaller girth and eating habits make them great tank mates! 

The Banded Snake Eel, sometimes called the Harlequin Snake Eel, is long and thin, about the width of your thumb.  Juveniles are smaller around of course.  Their color is an even banding of off white and brown.  In areas where the Banded Sea Snake (Laticauda columbrina) is found, they mimic that color which is brown with thinner white to off white bands.  Near Africa they are mostly white with thinner brown bars.  Their head and nose are more blunt, and not as sharp as several genus of snake eels.  Not being pointy, the head/face is different from many snake eels, in fact, to me even other “Myrichthys” (excluding M. maculosus) have pointier heads!  They have 2 rows of teeth that are blunt and run along the jaws.  The tip of the Banded Snake Eel’s tail is no different in color than the rest of their body.  They grow to 34.6” (88 cm), and although listed as a fish for experts, they are more for intermediate aquarists. 

 

Snake eels from the Myrichthys genus have had things said about them, that while true for other snake eels are not true for them.  I have owned the Banded Snake Eel and the Spotted Snake Eel (M. maculosus), and never had a problem feeding them.  The statement to try live feeder fish or shrimp does not work.  Only feed thawed krill, silversides, chopped scallops, shrimp or fish flesh from saltwater sources.   The Banded Snake Eel has poor vision and hunts by scent and uses their nose to zero in on food.  Even then they have poor aim, and only come out when dead fish/shrimp are put in the water at feeding time.  The only time I was bitten was when I was hand feeding my Spotted Snake Eel, and even then, it didn’t hurt!   It was just normal, grabbing pressure, not severe pressure.   As soon as he realized he had my finger and not the silverside, he let go and grabbed the silverside instead.  Watching them twist and turn to eat a piece that they think is too big is very cool!  In some areas, they mimic the Banded SEA Snake, which has thinner white stripes, but alas, the Banded Snake Eel is commonly eaten by the Sea Snake, and large groupers, etc. 

 

Although literature says these are hard to keep, they are not.  Typically they are incorrectly being fed live or freeze dried foods.  No freeze dried krill please!  They will not typically eat it.  A well trained eel may eventually accept it, but that is rare.  Banded Snake Eels will also not come out when there are aggressive fish in the tank.  A peaceful tank or reef is perfect for them.  Try not to feed oversized pieces of flesh, since your Banded Snake Eel, will have a hard time eating it.  They can break it up, but that causes a mess in the tank.  I have seen one give up on a piece of food he could not tear with those blunt teeth!   Feed them bite sized chopped scallops, shrimp and other saltwater sourced foods, once they start eating silversides.   Have a tight fitting lid and provide at least 2 to 3” of sand.  I never had a problem with the normal amount of sand we all keep in our reefs, since the pumps tend to make some areas deeper, closer to the 2 to 3” they like.  Mine was happy with less sand than sources state, so we can assume, like all eels, they are happy as long as their body is covered.  Place the food in one area of the tank whenever you see your eel out swimming.  The Banded Snake Eel will start going directly to that area to feed.  If they are still searching, they are hungry.  When full, they will bury themselves.

 

Do NOT house with aggressive fish!  Avoid large angels, more aggressive dwarf angelfish and pygmys, triggers, puffers, tobies, snappers, groupers, filefish, porcupine fish, large aggressive wrasses, or other fish that eat whole silversides or whole krill.  They do quite well with peaceful fish and are great in a reef.  I kept my Myrichthys genus snake eels with fairy wrasses, blennies, gobies, tangs, anthias, clownfish and the like.  Snake eels from the Myrichthys genus, similar to Nassarius Snails, only look for dead fish and shrimp.  They are the janitors of the reef.  Not every eel was made to eat live foods and that is a good thing!!!  They don’t have sharp teeth, even if they wanted to eat a fish... they can’t aim and have poor vision!  Some people mistakenly think that these snake eels are eating the guppies and freshwater feeder shrimp while alive, however, once they die from the saltwater, after the aquarist went to bed, this is when the Banded Snake Eel eats them!  I have never had a fish eaten by these snake eels.  Foods from fresh water sources are not good for their overall health.  As far as keeping them together, I have only kept one at a time, but I have seen pictures of Spotted Snake Eels (same genus) in the wild while young, grouped together.  This would be an area that we should explore.  They may come together in the wild to mate, however, adding to a tank that is much larger, like 150 gallons, it is reasonable that the 2 Banded Snake Eels would find their own area to dig in, similar to regular large eels and their hide outs.

Although literature says 135 gallons, 75 gallons would be fine.  I have kept mine happily in a smaller tank, since their thin body does not produce as much waste as a full size eel.  My first Myrichthys genus eel was a Spotted Snake Eel, and he was in a 55 gallon with no problems.  They only swim around when you are cleaning or if they are hungry.  The problem with a 55 gallon is that it is not very deep and if your lid is not heavily weighted, they can leverage themselves up and out of the tank.  Stick with a tank that is at least 24” deep or more and 4’ long or more.  Sand is the only substrate that should be used.  They will dig head first into the sand when full and happy.  Use the normal 2” to 3” of sand in your reef or fish only tank, because the pump will end up making a deeper area for them to bury themselves.  They just need enough to cover their body, and since they are as fat as your thumb, my experience is that the commonly stated 4” to 6” is not necessary.  They stir the sand with their movements, and adding a few nassarius snails will also help.   No, they will not eat the nassarius snails.   Worse thing I’ve seen is them grab the snail and move it out of the way.  Their jaws just don’t have the leverage to crush large shells.  Any light or water movement is fine and they swim on all levels of the tank.

For more Information on keeping this fish see:
Guide to a Happy, Healthy Marine Aquarium


  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Actinopterygii
  • Order: Anguilliformes
  • Family: Ophichthidae
  • Genus: Myrichthys
  • Species: colubrinus
Banded Snake Eel
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Banded Snake Eel (Myrichthys columbrinus) displaying typical aquarium behavior.

While the Banded Snake Eel does like to bury itself in the sand, it does become quite active once it senses food. As you can see by the way the eel is "sniffing" around, their eye sight is not perfect. The aquarist is feeding the Banded Snake Eel, krill, which is one of the best foods. Feeding in the same spot in your tank is the best bet, since they will learn where to look. They are easy to feed and care for, with the usual demise being a way out of the tank and onto the floor. Please make sure your lid has no openings and feed your eel when you see him out. They generally come out when hungry and will look everywhere, including the carpet for food!

Banded Snake Eel (Myrichthys columbrinus)
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Captive video of a Banded Snake Eels

This video demonstrates how the Banded Snake Eel cannot catch live prey. You can see that he smells something odd, which would be the fresh water feeder shrimp, but cannot zero in on the constant movements of these shrimp. Frustrated, at the end he goes back under the sand. Later, when these shrimp die, he will come back out and eat them. Notice he pays no mind to the slow moving clownfish. Banded Snake Eels are great additions to your tank and should be house with peaceful fish. Feed them thawed silversides and krill, however, they will not eat freeze dried krill. These pieces of food should be the size of their mouth.

Banded Snake Eel Myrichthys colubrinus Harlequin Snake Eel
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Banded Snake Eel in the wild.

As you can see, the searching habits are seen in the wild and in captivity. Notice the face and head. It is not sharp and pointed and the Banded Snake Eel only has blunt teeth on their jaws to grab onto and eat dead fish, including some fish that may have buried themselves in the sand and died, shrimp and worms. They have an insanely keen sense of smell, but poor eyesight and are almost clumsy. This is not a live fish or shrimp eater by any means! They grow up to 34.6" (88 cm) and are fine in a tank with sand, peaceful tank mates, and a tank that is 24" or deeper and at least 4 feet wide. Feed thawed silversides and krill.

Banded or Harlequin Snake Eel, Myrichthys colubrinus
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Newly purchased snake eel

The Banded Snake Eel, also referred to as the Harlequin Snake Eel will grow to just shy of 3 feet. They each have their own tastes when it comes to food, so you need to use trial and error. Some like the thawed krill, some like silversides, some like squid... you get my point. They need to be in a tank that is at least 4 feet long and 24" high so they cannot leverage themselves out of a shallower tank. If you are keeping them in a quarantine tank that is not as deep, keep a rock on the lid so they cannot escape. If you pinky fits, so will their body!

Banded Snake Eel - Quick Aquarium Care
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy
  • Minimum Tank Size: 75 gal (284 L)
  • Size of fish - inches: 34.6 inches (87.88 cm)
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Temperature: 72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8° C)
  • Range ph: 8.0-8.4
  • Diet Type: Carnivore
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Habitat: Distribution / Background

The Banded Snake Eel was first described by Boddaert in 1781.  The common names are Banded Snake Eel, Barred Snake Eel, Broadnose Worm Eel, Harlequin Snake Eel, and Ringed Snake Eel.  These names are descriptive of their pattern. 

Distribution - Habitat:
The Banded Snake Eel is found in the Indo-Pacific from the Red Sea to Delagoa bay and then from Mozambique, Africa and east to the Society Islands and French Polynesia.  They are found in shallow sandy flats and seagrass beds and hunt during the day.  They are found at depths of 3.3 to 81 feet (1 to 25 m) and act as janitors, eating deceased worms, fish and crustaceans.  Their advantage over other carrion eaters is that they can squeeze in to small holes in the reef, and using their amazing sense of smell, can find decaying animals.  

 

It is unknown what their social structure is like.  They may be similar to Spotted Snake Eels (Myrichthys maculosus), who gather together while juveniles and come together to mate as adults.  Similar to any other eel, as long as they EACH have their own area to hide under the sand, they may be compatible.  Their bite is not threatening so they probably cannot hurt each other very much.

They have not been evaluated by the IUCN Red List for Endangered Species.  

 

  • Scientific Name: Myrichthys colubrinus
  • Social Grouping: Solitary - Solitary as adults, but possibly small groups as juveniles.
  • IUCN Red List: NE - Not Evaluated or not listed

Description

The Harlequin Snake Eel, along with the Spotted Snake Eel (M. maculosus) both seem to be just a little different than others listed in this genus.  The mouth and head area of these eels are blunt, not pointed like the Sharptail Snake Eel (M. breviceps) which lines up with the fact that they eat dead fish and shrimp.  They have no need to probe into the sand quickly to find prey.  They are long and skinny and the Banded Snake Eel has evenly spaced brown and whitish bands.  It is said that they have a different color, brown with thinner white stripes where the Banded Sea Snake is common, that “variation” of Banded Snake Eel seems to have a  much sharper nose.  Other color variations are white with thinner black lines and the above mentioned even spacing with dark spots on the white bars here and there.  The head and mouth are similar in width with the Banded Snake Eel and Spotted Snake Eels I have owned.  They do not have sharp teeth, just dull blunt teeth, and I would know because one accidentally grabbed onto my finger.  The pressure was just grabbing pressure, again for a fish that doesn’t need to attack or hold live prey.  That being said, literature states that the large eels with blunt molar like teeth are fish safe, so why would this snake eel be stated as eating live fish?  Blunt molar eels will also eat dead fish.  They reach up to 34.6” (88 cm) and it is unknown how long they live.  Probably a few decades, typical of most saltwater fish and eels.     

A note on descriptions.  Many people are sold “snake eels” which are actually larger eels who are juveniles.  There are also snake eels that are fish eaters and have very sharp teeth.  One fish store shows me a “snake eel” which was actually a juvenile moray eel!  I pointed out the length and shape of the jaw!  Many people who post on websites and who do not provide pictures, add to the confusion, and their comments should be taken with a grain of salt.

 

  • Size of fish - inches: 34.6 inches (87.88 cm) - 34.6” (88 cm)
  • Lifespan: 10 years - At least 10 years or more, possibly 20 if they do not escape.

Fish Keeping Difficulty

When fed the correct, “dead” foods, the Banded Snake Eel is quite hardy.  Keeping them with peaceful fish in a reef or with peaceful fish in a fish only tank with 2” to 3” of sand is all they need.  When they are swimming around, that means they are hungry or an aggressive tank mate harassed them out of the sand.  Feed them thawed silversides, krill or other saltwater sourced chunks of flesh that can fit in their mouths, until they are full.  You can put the food in the same spot and they will go directly there when they are hungry.  Feeding them near the top of the tank will cause them to go there when hungry and this is how I lost my first Spotted Snake Eel!  He found a small opening and got out.  Feeding them near the bottom of the tank is best unless you have a very secure, tight fitting lid that has a little weight on it.  Use an air pump to pump in oxygen into the air between the water and the lid.  Without that, carbon dioxide will build up in this space, causing a drop in pH, which is dangerous to saltwater fish.  The tank should be at least 24” tall and 4 feet wide.  No aggressive tank mates and only sand.
 

  • Aquarium Hardiness: Moderately hardy - As long as tank mates are peaceful and dead flesh is fed to them, including thawed krill or small silversides.
  • Aquarist Experience Level: Intermediate - Watching tank mates and a larger tank with sand is needed.

Foods and Feeding

Banded Snake Eels are carnivores.  They have poor eyesight, and use their noses to bump against and find food.  When first acquiring them, place a partially buried silverside that is thawed out and smaller in girth than their mouth.  Burying it helps to hold it in place if there is a strong current in your tank.  It is better to find a little cupped out area of live rock that you can put the food into, (preferably where a water pump won’t blow the food out), since the Banded Snake Eel will go there looking for food when hungry.  Feed them every days when they are young and every 2 to 3 days when they are older.  Snake Eels will not overeat like large eels.  When they are full, they go back into the sand, head first.  Provide a varied diet of small chunks of scallops, shrimp, and fish flesh from saltwater sources once they are eating.  Each individual snake eel will like different foods, as has been my experience, but most love the krill (NOT freeze dried) and silversides, since they are so stinky and easy to find!  They may give up on large pieces that their blunt teeth cannot tear up.   

  • Diet Type: Carnivore
  • Flake Food: No - They only eat dead shrimp or fish flesh.
  • Tablet / Pellet: No - They only eat dead shrimp or fish flesh.
  • Meaty Food: All of Diet - Favorites are frozen/thawed silversides and krill. No freeze dried foods.
  • Feeding Frequency: Daily - Juveniles daily, adults every 2 to 3 days. Feed when they are out swimming.

Aquarium Care

The great thing about Banded Snake Eels is that they do not require the excessive water changes that large eels need.

Reef tanks

  • Medium sized up to 90 gallons, perform 15% bi-weekly. 
  • Large Tanks 100 gallons and over, once water is aged and stable can be changed 10% bi-weekly to 20% monthly, depending on bioload.
  •  

Fish only tanks:

  • Medium sized up to 90 gallons, perform 20% to 30% monthly depending on bioload. 
  • Large Tanks 100 gallons and over, once water is aged and stable can be changed 20% to 30% every 6 weeks depending on bioload.

For more information on maintaining a saltwater aquarium see: Saltwater Aquarium Basics: Maintenance. A reef tank will require specialized filtration and lighting equipment.
 

  • Water Changes: Bi-weekly

Aquarium Setup

Arrange rocks so there are areas of sand for your snake eel to bury in.  Form arches and stack rock in a way that you can put in the appropriate amount of rock, but still provide a place for your Banded Snake Eel to burrow.  Make sure rocks are sitting on the tanks bottom, not on sand.  They only burrow to hide themselves and are not excessive in their habits of digging.  They are like Nassarius Snails; once they are buried, they’re good!  Sand is the only substate that should be used.  Gravel or small round rocks will not keep the pH up in a saltwater tank and crushed coral will lacerate their skin.  Juveniles can be housed in a 55 gallon tank, however, adults would need a tank that is 24” deep at at least 4 feet long.  They do come out and swim, but only when hungry so very large tanks over 90 gallons are not necessary.  This is also true with large eels.  The depth of a 24” tank just helps to prevent them leveraging off the lid as they push on the substrate.  If the tank is shallower, it should be weighted down.  Snake Eels are not as strong as full sized eels, but can escape through small holes.  If attempting to keep a pair or a group, the tank should be 150 gallons or more.  Please comment below if you have been successful with multiple snake eels.   Keep them with peaceful fish, preferably a reef setting.

  • Minimum Tank Size: 75 gal (284 L) - 75 gallons (284 liters) Tank should be at least 24” deep or more and 4 feet long or more.
  • Suitable for Nano Tank: No
  • Live Rock Requirement: Typical Amount - Arrange rocks to give maximum sand surface area. Which is good for the tank anyhow, as it prevents dead zones!
  • Substrate Type: Sand - Do not use gravel
  • Lighting Needs: Any
  • Temperature: 72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8° C) - 72˚ F (22˚ C) May refuse to eat if temperature is lower. 82˚ F (28˚ C)
  • Breeding Temperature: - Unknown
  • Specific gravity: 1.023-1.025 SG
  • Range ph: 8.0-8.4
  • Brackish: No
  • Water Movement: Any
  • Water Region: All

Social Behaviors

Due to the lack of information, it is unknown if they can be kept in the same tank, but due to their passive nature, a larger tank may house 2 of the same species or 2 different species as long as they have a place to bury and hide, similar to large eels.  Their blunt teeth make their bites to one another, if that happens, less dangerous.  

Banded Snake Eels will not bother any fish that is alive.  They forage for dead fish and shrimp, unlike some snake eels who DO eat live fish.  Their bad eye sight and aim will attest to this!  I have often wondered if they have taste buds on their body!  My snake eel’s body bumped against a piece of krill he was blindly looking for and immediately backed up!  However, when he bumped my blenny, he kept going.  Keep with peaceful tank mates and some semi-aggressive fish like clownfish, anthias, fairy wrasses, flasher wrasses, blennies, gobies, tangs etc.  Do not house with large angelfish, Harlequin Tuskfish (will pick at them because they move so slow), aggressive dwarf angelfish, puffers, aggressive tobies, porcupine fish, groupers who will eat them whole esp as juveniles, large eels, triggerfish or lionfish.  The Banded Snake Eel will not come out to feed if there are aggressive fish present.  They also should not be kept with large Thalassoma wrasses or other wrasses who will compete with them for food.  Banded Snake Eels are slow movers when they are looking for food and need time to find it.  I had to sell my Harlequin Tusk who was biting my eel's back and leaving wounds that I thought were from the rock work.  As soon as I put the eel in another tank (still had rock work) his back healed up quickly, in typical durable eel fashion!

 

Banded Snake Eels will not bother corals, in fact, their movements help to stir up dead zones of water.  

 

They are no threat to any type of invert unless it dies, then it will eat the carcass.  

 

  • Venomous: No
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatible with:
    • Same species - conspecifics: Sometimes - Juveniles may be housed together. Possibly adults in larger tanks.
    • Peaceful fish (gobies, dartfish, assessors, fairy wrasses): Safe
    • Semi-Aggressive (anthias, clownfish, dwarf angels): Monitor - Do not house with aggressive dwarf angelfish or pygmy angels.
    • Aggressive (dottybacks, 6-line & 8-line wrasse, damselfish): Monitor - Dottybacks and aggressive damselfish are poor tank mates.
    • Large Semi-Aggressive (tangs, large angels, large wrasses): Monitor - Only peaceful zooplankton eating angels like Swallowtails and tangs. Avoid larger bolder wrasses, including the tuskfish.
    • Large Aggressive, Predatory (lionfish, groupers, soapfish): Threat - Too aggressive for your Banded Snake Eel and some of these may eat him!
    • Slow Swimmers & Eaters (seahorses, pipefish, mandarins): Monitor - Mandarins and pipefish do not eat the same types of food and will not be bothered. Seahorses need their own tank.
    • Anemones: Safe
    • Mushroom Anemones - Corallimorphs: Safe
    • LPS corals: Safe
    • SPS corals: Safe
    • Gorgonians, Sea Fans: Safe
    • Leather Corals: Safe
    • Soft Corals (xenias, tree corals): Safe
    • Star Polyps, Organ Pipe Coral: Safe
    • Zoanthids - Button Polyps, Sea Mats: Safe
    • Sponges, Tunicates: Safe
    • Shrimps, Crabs, Snails: Safe
    • Starfish: Safe
    • Feather Dusters, Bristle Worms, Flatworms: Safe
    • Clams, Scallops, Oysters: Safe
    • Copepods, Amphipods, Mini Brittle Stars: Safe

Sex: Sexual differences

Unknown

Breeding / Reproduction

Unknown, however there is some general information.  Snake eels as juveniles may group together, however, adults are generally found alone and come together in groups in specific locations to breed. Breeding near the surface of the water is not uncommon with some genus of snake eels.  Spawning may be similar to other eels who press their bellies together and release the gametes at the same time.  

  • Ease of Breeding: Unknown

Fish Diseases

Banded Snake Eels are disease resistant and to date, no recorded ailments are available.  Personally, my snake eels from the Myrichthys genus never became ill.  Although, my first Spotted Snake Eel developed “dried-upus carpetus.”

If the other fish in your tank are ill, do not treat the tank with medications containing copper compounds and oganophosphates, namely, masoten, dylox, Dipterex, Neguvon, and Malathion.  These compounds will kill your snake eel.


For information about saltwater fish diseases and illnesses, see Aquarium Fish Diseases and Treatments.

Availability

These eels are very HARD to find since they received such a bad rap!  If you can find them, they range from reasonable to overpriced.  

References

Animal-World Refernces: Marine and Reef

Carrie L. McBirney (personal knowledge)

Author: Carrie L. McBirney
Lastest Animal Stories on Banded Snake Eel


Lexi - 2015-03-18
Do they come up for air? I think I have baby ones in my tank, but they are in a hole in the rock always, do they live there ever?

  • Jasmine Brough Hinesley - 2015-03-29
    I don't believe they have to come up for air - they get all the oxygen they need from the water. If you have babies, they may stay in the rock until they are bigger and ready to venture out looking for a new place to hang out.
Reply
Lakeland - 2011-10-11
My banded snake eel won't eat and I can't put the food front of home cause he is under the sand or swimming away from it

  • Rajashekar - 2014-08-08
    Wow! What a great looking chair you've got Luna! And a great place to keep check on enityrhevg -- without being too obvious! Look forward to checking in on you next week.Sam Schnauzer
Reply
Carrie - 2011-08-25
I have owned Myrichthys maculosus. This eel is from the SAME genus. They do NOT like live items. They are carrion eaters and will be quite happy eating thawed silversides (feed according to their size) and any other thawed fish. They like thawed kill as well. The ONLY problem with these fish is they are escape artists. Gravel will harm them. They need a sand bed FREE of sharp objects like crushed coral. They stay under the sand for several days and come out to eat when hungry. If you must hand feed them, do it near the bottom of the tank so they do not associate the top of the tank with food.... which will lead to their escape. If you DO find yours on the ground, put it back in the tank for an hour or so, as they do go into hibernation if exposed to the air too long.

they WILL NOT eat live fish..... their sense of smell is only tuned into DEAD flesh. PERFECT snake eel for the reef!

  • Anonymous - 2011-08-25
    Good to know as many wold believe their little fella had passed. Thank you
Reply
japs - 2008-04-08
It's really a cool pet but I am a bit worried because he hasn't eaten yet. I tried to feed him but he ignores the food that I am giving, instead he tries to escape, pretty sneaky. He is already 20 inches long and one finger thick.

  • marco - 2010-04-05
    Yeah it really is cool but it's pretty sneaky..you should put a screen on it with tiny holes just small enough for the air to come in..thats what I did..in their first day in the fish tank,they had managed to escape..I found the one under the cabinet and the other one on the floor..too lucky they didn't die.
  • ron - 2010-12-06
    I'm here in the philippines and I bought one of these eels for US$1.. I'm not sure if they were smuggled that's why they're so cheap.. and..... the vendor told me that they were a harmless banded eel and it was with a small fish together with the eel inside a sealed plastic bag with oxygen when I bought it... it was it's first day tonight.... in my open fish tank with 6 small fishes and 1 hammer head fish...
Reply