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Garden eels (Subfamily Heteroconginae)

Garden eels constitute a subfamily of conger eels (Family Congridae). Most garden eels live in the Indo-Pacific, but some occur in warmer parts of the Atlantic Ocean (including the Caribbean), Indian and East Pacific and the Red Sea at depths of 1-45 m (1-3). They establish themselves in sandy reefs or dense sea-grass areas exposed to currents, so they can feed prolifically from drifting zooplankton.

The 12 species vary in colour. The largest species is about 120 cm (47 in) long, but most species are 35-75 cm (1-3). Garden eels have no appreciable sense of smell, but have incredible eyesight.

These small eels live in burrows on the sea floor and make their holes by gyrating the tip of their tail to drill into the sand, until they are deep enough to retract their bodies and disappear from view. To ensure that the burrow is stable, the eel secretes a substance that adheres to the wall to prevent a collapse. Garden eels get their name from their practice of poking their heads from their burrows, while most of their bodies remain hidden. As they tend to live close together in colonies of up ro 1,000 or more, hundreds of eel heads "growing" from the sea floor and swaying in the current resemble plants in a garden. As divers approach them, the eels retreat into their holes, disappearing at the last minute as divers get too close for comfort, but reappearing almost as soon as they divers pass by (3).

Garden eels are related to conger and moray eels, but don’t share their boldness when approached. While garden eels co-exist happily in their colonies, individuals are territorial with larger eels usually having bigger territories, but this may be under 25cm from a neighbour (3). Dominant males usually take up their territory in the centre sections of the colony, which gives them the best choice of females and a prime position for feeding.

.Predators include snake eels, which burrow below an unsuspecting garden eel and attack it from below. A triggerfish may attack from above by diving into the sand and trying to dig the eel out of its burrow as it hides from view.

in the mating season, the males move nearer to the chosen females and can be most aggressive to unwelcome advances by other males. Once the eggs are fertilised they are released and carried in the current until they hatch as larvae. When the young grown to sufficient size, they swim down and form burrows of their own in the sandy part of the reef.

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