The winter months are the breeding season for wolf-eels, which live among rocky reefs from Alaska to Southern California. This fierce looking fish has a bumpy head and plump lips covering sharp front teeth and crushing molars. Juvenile wolf-eels are orange-red with dark spots while adults are mostly gray or brown with dark spots surrounded by white rings covering their bodies. Their scientific name is Anarrhichthys ocellatus, which means “similar looking species with eyelike spots.”
Wolf-eels are believed to mate for life, and in aquaria, are believed to bond at the age of four and lay eggs at the age of seven. During courtship the male will playfully butt his head into the female’s stomach, whereupon the female wolf-eel lays up to 10,000 eggs, which are then fertilized by the male as they are laid. Female and male wolf-eels watch, protect and rotate the eggs until they hatch after about 13 to 16 weeks. To help keep predators, such as greenlings and rockfish, at bay, only one parent leaves the eggs at a time to search for food.
Wolf-eels can grow to more than six feet. While they spend most of the day in their rocky reef dens, they emerge after dark to find food, using their forceful back teeth to smash the spines of sea urchins, the hard exoskeletons of crabs, shells of clams and other various invertebrates. The wolf-eel can also use its front teeth to grab hold of animals. Holding on with sharp front teeth, the wolf-eel then twists its body in a rolling and spinning motion until the flesh of the prey strips off.
As an adult, the wolf-eel has few predators, but octopuses sometime fight the wolf-eel for the best dark caves. Additionally, fishing boats that drag weighted nets behind their boats, called “rockhopper trawls,” can destroy the wolf-eel’s habitat, and commercial and sport fishermen may catch them accidentally.
The bottom-dwelling wolf-eel can be seen up-close at Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. More information can be obtained by calling 800.HEAL.BAY or visit www.healthebay.org.