Although the Ribbon Eel has been notoriously hard to keep, some aquarists are having success with feeding these beautiful creatures! Read on!
The Ribbon Eel starts out it’s life as male and is jet black from head to toe with a yellow dorsal fin. Once they hit 23 to 32,” the eel’s face turns bright yellow to match the tip of the dorsal fin, and the black body turns bright blue. Around 33,” the Ribbon Eel develops female reproductive organs, and if needed will turn into a female, which is a yellow to bluish yellow in color (appears green at times). Their nose has 2 long tubular protrusions that are tipped with an exaggerated fan like shape! They lack scales like all other eels, do not have bony plates over their gills, and have continuous dorsal and pelvic fins. In captivity, sometimes the eels will remain black even though they have developed females organs and are able to lay eggs. These eels are thin and compressed, but reach about 3.9 feet (1.2 m) and are thought to live around 20 years, yet less in captivity. These eels are best kept by advanced aquarists.
These eels, when in their blue or male form, were once named as a separate species, R. ambonensis. Eventually, it was realized that they are the same eel; just that the black color is the juvenile form. They are not confused with other eels, however, when hearing the name White Ribbon Eel, that is referring to Pseudechidna brummeri, which is a close relative, but this eel is no where near as hard to care for as the Ribbon Eel. The White Ribbon Eel does not have the exaggerated nose protrusions, but more of a rounded snout and can have black freckles and the entire body is white. When Ribbon Eels swim, they look like one of those ribbon toys that you wave it back and forth, which makes for an interesting sight! They prefer a very dark hiding place and good water movement.
The Ribbon Eel is difficult to care for, due to their refusal to eat when put into a captive environment. This may be due to the use of cyanide and other poor collecting practices. There are however, several aquarists who have spent many weeks weaning their Ribbon Eel from live feeder fish onto frozen and prepared foods! This takes a lot of dedication and patience, and the steps are listed below in this article. A few pointers are not to house them alone. They do best when there are two or three other Ribbon Eels in the same tank. Releasing live food with several of these eels will trigger a feeding frenzy. One eel by itself will ignore the live food. Oddly, if there are other fish in the tank that are excitedly eating, it will pique their interest, yet they still may not feed. Don’t loose hope however, because one clever aquarist had a pair of those grabber tongs pretended it was another Ribbon Eel chasing the fish! The Ribbon Eel got excited and ate the liv food. They seem to be attracted to red and orange colors in live fish like rosy reds, goldfish and guppies with those colors. These fish should be bite sized.
The Ribbon Eel will eat any small fish that can fit in their mouths. They don’t usually bother snails and crabs, and may accidentally eat a shrimp, but those are not on their natural menu. They do best in pairs or groups and shouldn’t be housed with large groupers or eels that will eat thinner eels, especially when they are juveniles. They are otherwise peaceful, but again, not to bite sized fish. Keeping them well fed may help in this area, but keeping fish that are twice as deep as their mouth opening are best. This would be angelfish, tangs, peaceful triggers, very large full grown species of clownfish and similarly sized fish. Smaller clowns like pinks and perculas, as well as gobies and smaller fish will be eaten. Avoid very aggressive fish that may eat all the food you are offering to them like very large wrasses who may gobble up food intended for the eel. They should be fine with Myrichthys snake eels and White Ribbon Eels. Snowflake eels have been known to be too aggressive towards the Ribbon Eel, but there may be some exceptions. Do not house with large groupers or other eel eating eels or fish, especially when they are juveniles.
The tank should be 55 gallons and at least 4 feet long. With 2 or more, the tank should be 75 to 90 gallons to handle waste. Form 2” PVC into an “H” shape with the ends open and curved up and sticking out above the sand. They will quickly adapt to those dark tunnels and will be quite content! Sand should be the substrate of choice and a very secure lid without holes over 1/2.” Ribbon Eels are escape artists, but with the above mentioned “home,” they will be more content. The water level should be no more than 3” from the top. Their desire to look “out” of the tank is satisfied when it is around 2” from the top of the tank, but one aquarist noted that when he had the water level 4” lower than the upper edge of the tank, it caused their Ribbon Eel to stretch out more and accidentally exit the tank. Whether that is the case or not, try for the 2” just in case you leave the lid open!
For more Information on keeping marine fish see:
Guide to a Happy, Healthy Marine Aquarium
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Actinopterygii
- Order: Anguilliformes
- Family: Muraenidae
- Genus: Rhinomuraena
- Species: quaesita
- Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced
- Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult
- Minimum Tank Size: 55 gal (208 L)
- Size of fish – inches: 47.0 inches (119.38 cm)
- Temperament: Semi-aggressive
- Temperature: 72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8° C)
- Range ph: 8.1-8.4
- Diet Type: Carnivore
- My Aquarium – Enter your aquarium to see if this fish is compatible!
Habitat: Distribution / Background
The Ribbon Eel, Rhinomuraena quaesita, was first described by Garman in 1888. At one time, the male color form, which is blue with a yellow dorsal fin, was thought to be a different species. So the name R. ambonensis carried on until 1990, when it was discovered that these eels are one in the same. The common names they are known by are Blue Ribbon Eel, Black Leafnosed Moray Eel, Black Ribbon Eel, Ribbon Eel, and Ribbon Moray. The genus name Rhinomuraena, when broken down has 2 meanings. Rhinos means “nose” in Greek and muraena means “moray eel” in Latin. This is likely referring to the long tubular nostrils that fan out at the ends, located at the tip of the snout.
Distribution – Habitat:
The Ribbon Eel is found in the Indo-Pacific; from East Africa to the Tuamoto Islands and then from southern Japan southward to New Caledonia and French Polynesia including the Marianas Islands and the Marshall Islands. They are very secretive, found in seaward reefs and lagoons, hidden in sand, mud or within rubble with their heads poking out, from depths as shallow as 3 feet and up to 219 feet (1 to 67 m). They feed on small fish that can easily be swallowed whole. Juveniles are found alone, however there can be more than one adult in the same area, sometimes sharing a hideout.
They are on the IUCN Red List for Least Concerned.
- Scientific Name: Rhinomuraena quaesita
- Social Grouping: Pairs – Found alone as juveniles but in pairs as adults.
- IUCN Red List: LC – Least Concern
The Ribbon Eel comes in 3 different color forms, yet all 3 have a yellow tipped dorsal fin and all start out as males. Juveniles start out with a black head and body until they are 23 to 32 inches (65 to 80 cm), which is when they start to develop their blue coloring. The snout and lower jaw turns to a bright yellow as the rest of the body turns into a beautiful bright blue color. When the Ribbon Eel hits 33 inches (85 cm), they develop female sex organs and can change from male to female if needed. Females turn a yellowish blue, green or yellow, while some specimens retain blue in the posterior part of their body. In captivity, sometimes the black color remains into adulthood for unknown reasons. These eels have 3 fleshy tentacles on the tip of their bottom jaw, a pointy projection at the tip of their snout and 2 tubular nostrils that flare out into an exaggerated fanlike appearance. Their body is thin and compressed and they swim in an undulating manner that resembles the way a thick ribbon being waved back and forth would look. They have one row of small thin teeth in their jaw which are slanted backwards. The adult ribbon eel can have 270 to 286 vertebrae, and can reach 3.9 feet (1.2), and will live 20 years in the wild, however only 4 to 7 years in captivity.
- Size of fish – inches: 47.0 inches (119.38 cm) – 47″ (1.2 m) Juveniles up to 23 to 32” (65 to 80 cm) and adult coloring begins at that size, however females develop at 33 inches (85 cm)
- Lifespan: 20 years – They live 20 years in the wild, however they are said to only live 4 to 7 years in captivity. Hopefully this number will rise if they are fed correctly.
Fish Keeping Difficulty
The Ribbon Eel is difficult to care for and it is to be kept by advanced aquarists. The tank should be at least 4 feet long, with a minimum of 55 gallons. Unlike other eels, the Ribbon Eel is very thin and slender, producing less waste than a deep bodied eel, so they do not need as large of a tank. It seems keeping them alone may not be the best advice and feeding them when the lights are dimmed or out; near sunset, is the best time until they are acclimated to prepared foods. Several aquarists have had some success with getting these beautiful creatures to eat. Although fresh water feeder fish are not healthy for the Ribbon Eel, due the lack of nutrition in these foods, they can be used to help the feeding process. After reading several success stories, I tried to break it down below. Ribbon Eels seem to have a love for small feeder fish that are red or orange, as noted by one aquarist. Creating a feeding frenzy will help when there is more than one Ribbon Eel in the tank, and there are two different methods. One step by step is for a pair and one set is for a single Ribbon Eel. For proper tank set up, see “Aquarium Set Up” for the best method in keeping them happy and in one spot. Without the proper set up, they will never feed. Note: During the feeding process, to get them over to frozen/thawed fish, only feed them one fish a day so they are hungry which will help speed up the processes. In other words, if you feed them 2 or 3 fish and then several days go by, the process will take much longer.
For a single Ribbon Eel:
Buy small guppies with red or orange coloring, very small feeder goldfish in orange or small rosy reds. The first day drop a bunch of them (4 to 10) into the tank along with flake and mysis for the other fish. If this does not work, use a pair of those gray grabbers to pretend that open claw part is a Ribbon Eel chasing prey. Without a cue from another Ribbon Eel, they seem to stare, ignoring all the fish prey, looking all dazed and confused. With other fish in the tank, it helps to “awaken” them, but they need that “grabber” to “chase” the fish for some reason! One aquarist noticed that only when the other “eel” (grabber) was in the tank did their Ribbon Eel seem interested in the feeder fish.
Once your Ribbon Eel will eat these live foods, grab a feeder fish by the tail with the grabber and offer it to the Ribbon Eel. Do NOT shove it as their mouth, but simply move it slowly back and forth near their hideout. If the feeder fish gets away, just “chase” it with the grabber until it gets close to the eel’s home and he will grab it. (there is an excellent video on this!)
When they are not afraid to take a live fish from the grabber anymore, then offer them a dead one, but wiggle it a little and have it “swim” buy the Ribbon Eels home until he grabs it.
They may just stop eating for an entire week, at one point but don’t give up, since this is an eel “thing,” Check the pH and water quality. Try some dead small feeder goldfish with the grabber. Again, this is only until you can switch them to silversides and other marine flesh.
Once they are eating dead fish off the grabber, start to offer very small silversides. Cut them into smaller pieces, using a few drops of Selcon on it to heighten their interest. If the Ribbon Eel refuses the silverside, wait a day or so and try again. One aquarist found their eel only liked the silverside’s heads initially!
Once your Ribbon Eel is feeding, you can offer them other marine flesh that is cut long and narrow for them to eat.
For a pair of Ribbon Eels:
Buy small guppies with red or orange coloring or small rosy reds or very small goldfish if all else fails. The first day drop 4 or 5 of them into the tank along with flake and mysis for the other fish, to cause a feeding frenzy. Each eel will take a cue from the other eel and should eat without hesitation. The competition with the other eels is what seems to be a trigger for them to eat.
Once your Ribbon Eels will eat these live foods, grab a rosy red feeder fish by the tail with the tongs and offer it to the Ribbon Eel. Do NOT shove it as their mouth, but simply move it slowly back and forth near their hideout while it is still alive.
When they are not afraid to take the live fish from your tongs, the next step is to kill a feeder fish (you can freeze it and thaw it if you are not the murderous type) and wiggle it in front of them at the next feeding.
When they start to take dead feeder fish, try offering a very small silverside. They will not try for food that is larger than what they can swallow whole. If the Ribbon Eel refuses the silverside, wait a day or so or cut them up into smaller pieces. One aquarist found their eel only liked the silverside’s heads initially!
Try putting a few drops of Selcon the silversides to coax them to eat. As time goes on, you may be able to just drop them in the tank, but that is doubtful. You will probably have to use the feeder stick like you would with most other eels.
Do not house with fish who pick at appendages or large grouper or large eel that can swallow a juvenile whole.
- Aquarium Hardiness: Difficult – Due to their feeding habits.
- Aquarist Experience Level: Advanced
Foods and Feeding
Ribbon Eels are carnivores that eat very small fish that swim near their hideout. Offer live rosy reds, guppies with orange or red coloring and very small goldfish to get them to start eating. Convert them over to silversides and other marine flesh. Feed them every other day. They are not crab or shrimp eaters, and while they may take a krill or feeder shrimp, their diet screams FISH! Feed them until they are full every to 2 to 3 days once they are feeding on marine fish flesh and off live foods.
- Diet Type: Carnivore – Only feed marine fish flesh once acclimated to prepared foods.
- Flake Food: No – They need fish flesh.
- Tablet / Pellet: No – They need fish flesh.
- Live foods (fishes, shrimps, worms): Some of Diet – Use rosy reds, orange or red finned guppies or small goldfish to start a feeding response .
- Meaty Food: All of Diet
- Feeding Frequency: Daily – Feed every other day until full once they are acclimated, but only one live fish per day as you acclimate them.
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. Regular water changes done bi-weekly will help replace the trace elements that the fish and corals use up. Learn more about reef keeping see: Mini Reef Aquarium Basics.
- Water Changes: Bi-weekly
The Ribbon Eel will do best when the tank has a specific set up. They have an extreme desire to have their bodies in complete darkness, to the point of “finding” it outside the tank if needed! The most successful method is taking 2” PVC and shaping it into a large capital letter “H,” with the pipe being almost as long as the tank, but each of the 4 openings would have a curved piece or elbow. Connect the long pieces with 2 “t” shaped PVC joiners in the middle and make the distance between the long pieces from 6” to 10” depending on the width of your tank. Bury it in the sand with only the openings sticking out. Live rock is of course needed and a reef or fish only tank will both work fine for the Ribbon Eel. The temperature they tolerate is 72 to 82˚F (22 to 28˚C), and there should be good water movement. One aquarist noticed that when his pumps were off to feed his corals, the Ribbon Eel would come out and swim around, and noted that they like water movement over their hideout opening. The pH should be 8.1 to 8.4, with lower levels proving fatal. If the lid is solid, to prevent escape, use an air pump to keep carbon dioxide from building up between the water surface and the glass to keep pH up. When they are eating and comfortable, they will come out and venture around the tank. They are best kept in pairs, either 2 males or male/female, since their feeding responses take cues off the other eel.
- Minimum Tank Size: 55 gal (208 L) – 55 gallons (208 liters) Tank should be 4 feet long minimum.
- Suitable for Nano Tank: No
- Live Rock Requirement: Typical Amount
- Substrate Type: Sand – Bury an “H” shaped 2″ diameter PVC under the sand with the ends capped with an elbow that sticks out of the sand.
- Lighting Needs: Any – They need complete darkness to hide in or they will not settle.
- Temperature: 72.0 to 82.0° F (22.2 to 27.8° C) – 72˚F (22˚C) 82˚F (28˚C)
- Specific gravity: 1.023-1.025 SG
- Range ph: 8.1-8.4 – Low pH can cause them to stop eating or a change in behavior and eventually death.
- Brackish: No
- Water Movement: Moderate – Try to aim pumps in a way to have some water passing over their hideout openings.
- Water Region: Bottom – When comfortable, they may come out and swim around at all levels.
Ribbon Eels are best kept as pairs or in a small group, since they do seem to take feeding cues from each other and enjoy the company. House in a tank that is at least 75 gallons and 4 feet or longer for 2 eels and 100 gallons for 3. They can be housed alone, but you need to be willing to pretend to be a Ribbon Eel with your “grabber” and “chase” the food at feeding time.
Other eels that can be house with them should include other docile eels like the White Ribbon Eel, which is a close relative, or possibly the Spotted or Banded Snake Eels. Large morays who are fish eaters may consume them due to their very “spaghetti” like slurp-ability, especially when they are juveniles. That being said, do not house juveniles with large groupers, soapfish or other “fish” eaters. One aquarist has an experience with a Snowflake Eel that bears repeating. A Snowflake Eel was in a tank with a Ribbon Eel for 6 months, and one day attacked the Ribbon Eel, grabbing it by the head. That Snowflake was quickly adopted out! Imagine how hard it is to get them eating, and how afraid and timid they are when you are choosing tank mates. Larger fish like tangs and full grown dwarf angelfish should be fine, however gobies and small wrasses will probably be eaten. Keep an eye on larger wrasses like bird wrasses and large species of wrasses that may compete with them for food. They are probably best kept with fish that are not going to compete with them for food.
The Ribbon Eel is perfectly safe with all corals. Their movements will actually help stir dead zones behind the reef.
Inverts are usually safe, however very small shrimp may be eaten.
- Venomous: No
- Temperament: Semi-aggressive
- Compatible with:
- Same species – conspecifics: Yes – They do best in pairs or in groups of 3.
- Peaceful fish (gobies, dartfish, assessors, fairy wrasses): Threat
- Semi-Aggressive (anthias, clownfish, dwarf angels): Monitor – Only large and full grown species.
- Threat – They will either be eaten or may be too aggressive toward the Ribbon Eel.
- Large Semi-Aggressive (tangs, large angels, large wrasses): Monitor – Marke sure large wrasses and anot eating all the food.
- Large Aggressive, Predatory (lionfish, groupers, soapfish): Monitor – Do not house juveniles with these fish.
- 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: Monitor – May eat very small shrimp on occasion.
- Starfish: Safe
- Feather Dusters, Bristle Worms, Flatworms: Safe
- Clams, Scallops, Oysters: Safe
- Copepods, Amphipods, Mini Brittle Stars: Safe
Sex: Sexual differences
It is possible the males are blue and the females are yellow to greenish blue, however this has not been totally confirmed.
Breeding / Reproduction
The Ribbon Eel is a protandrous hermaphrodite; born male with the ability to turn into a female as needed. They have a unique positioning of their reproductive organs, not found in any other vertebrate. These organs are located behinds their anus. There is one account of a pair spawning in captivity. They spawned early in the morning in an aquarium in California on July 16th and June 12th of 2008. The workers did not actually see the event, but there were 300 eggs that floated to the top of the aquarium and they were 4 mm across. These two eels retained their jet black coloring, although their size dictated they were sexually mature. It is speculated that this was due to a possible nutritional or environmental factor that is lacking in captivity, at least in their case. The eggs of these two eels were apparently not fertilized,
They have not been bred successfully in captivity. See Breeding Marine Fish page for a description of how they reproduce in the wild.
- Ease of Breeding: Unknown
Occasionally, like all eels your Ribbon Eel may refuse to eat. This can be caused by overfeeding, poor water conditions or a drop in water temperature. Sometimes there seems to be no reason for an eel to go 2 weeks without eating, then it suddenly eats again. If poor water conditions are suspected, it may take several weeks for them to start feeding again. In the meantime, do several larger partial water changes to remedy the problem.
Rarely, if ever, are eels are inflicted by parasites. Their behavior of flicking their dorsal fin up and down, head-shaking or rubbing it’s head against rocks or other hard, rough surfaces is a sign something is wrong. Occasionally, eels contract nematode worms, which are squiggly, raised bumps under their skin. Do not use medications containing copper compounds and oganophosphates, namely, masoten, dylox, Dipterex, Neguvon, and Malathion. Malathion, for example is found in some medications to treat nematodes on fish. What to do? Massive water changes or place them in a treatment tank with PVC so they can hide, with an extremely heavy lid, and treat with erythromycin (Maracyn) for bacterial infections.
Ribbon Eels can be found on line and specially ordered through your local fish store. They may be seasonal and are priced in the average range for eels.
Animal-World Refernces: Marine and Reef
First documented spawning of Ribbon Eels at the Steinhart Aquarium
By Matt Wandell, April 17, 2010
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