You are about to learn about one of the most attractive eels in the ocean and also one of the most challenging to keep in your aquarium but don’t get discouraged, if you are up for the challenge then the Ribbon Eel might be the right choice for you.
We hope you enjoy this care guide with information from their food and diet to their mates, enjoy.
Table of Contents
Ribbons Eels, also known as Rhinomuraena quaesita, are a species of Moray with unique coloration and reproductive characteristics. They are native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, living in reefs and lagoons between East Africa and French Polynesia. Ribbons are generally shy creatures who keep to the crevices and holes of craggy rock beds.
Lucky scuba divers who can glimpse them swimming understand the origin of their name as the fish flutter through the water like a ribbon twirled in the air. The visually stunning fish are notoriously hard to keep in an aquarium and virtually impossible to breed.
Like all Morays, Ribbons have scaleless bodies and lack pectoral fins, giving them their snakelike appearance. Their jaws are in perpetual motion. While their rows of sharp teeth make it seem like an intimidation tactic, it is simply a breathing technique. Ribbons must continually move water across their gills for oxygen.
Author Note: These creatures are best suited for expert aquarists with well-developed tanks and the time to train a wild-caught eel.
Appearance & Color Change
Ribbon Eels have elongated thin bodies that feature a tall dorsal fin running the length of their body, contributing to the ribbon effect when they swim. These eels have a face and snout similar to other Moray eels, but Ribbons have flared nostrils. Their mouths feature rows of needle-like teeth because these fish snatch and shred prey as it swims past their hiding spot. Their teeth help the eel hold on to slippery fish that try to wiggle free from the bite.
Ribbon Eels fascinatingly undergo the color and sex changes explained below as part of their life cycle.
- Black Ribbon Eel. All ribbons are born male and begin with a black color and yellow dorsal fin.
- Blue Ribbon Eel. As the eel reaches adulthood, its body shifts to a vibrant electric blue color while maintaining its yellow dorsal fin. The mouth also turns yellow at this stage.
- Yellow Ribbon Eel. Finally, when the eel transitions to female, it turns yellow and lengthens. This shift is the final stage of the fish’s life cycle.
Author Note: While these color shifts are standard, marine biologists have observed some deviation in captive Ribbons.
Eels at one aquarium were able to fertilize females during their black stage, indicating they had already reached adulthood. Scientists speculate the absence of color shifts may result from living in captivity and lacking proper nutrients.
Wild Ribbon Eels can have a lifespan of up to 20 years. Their propensity to explore rocks and hide in tunnels provides excellent defense from predators. Captive Ribbons only survive for a few years due to the difficulty of feeding them and their relatively large size. Some experts speculate that the cyanide used to capture the eels causes long-term damage that reduces appetite and longevity.
The size of male Ribbons is usually 26 to 40 inches long while females can grow up to 51 inches.
Ribbon Eel Care
Ribbon Eels are a challenging fish to care for that require precise tank conditions and a lot of space. The fish cannot breed successfully in captivity, so the only ones available for purchase are wild-caught. This fact adds to the challenge as the eels may not be tank adapted when you introduce them to your aquarium.
While conventional wisdom dictates that aquarists isolate all fish in a holding tank before introducing them to their home tank, some experts suggest otherwise with Ribbons. These eels need ample hiding spots to minimize stress. Creating such conditions in a holding tank is usually unrealistic, making it difficult to feed and condition the eel.
For ribbon eels experts recommend a minimum tank size of 55-gallons. While these eels spend most of their time coiled up among the rock, they require adequate space to explore.
Author Note: Your tank must be sealed or have mesh covering over every opening. Ribbon Eels are effective leapers that will attempt to escape. Fortunately, they can survive up to 12 hours out of the water. If you find your Ribbon on the floor around its tank, confirm it’s dead before discarding its remains.
- Water temperature: 78°F to 82°F
- pH levels: 8 to 8.2
- Water hardness: 8 to 12 dKH
- Specific gravity: 1.023 to 1.025 sg
In addition, Ribbons are susceptible to ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate build-up in the water. Keep levels as close to zero as possible, and use a protein skimmer to remove dead organic matter.
What To Put In Their Tank
Wild Ribbons spend their time among rocks, with their faces exposed from holes and tunnels, waiting for prey to pass by. Do your best to simulate these conditions in your tank. Provide enough live rock for the Ribbon to explore, leaving crevices and spaces for the fish to hide.
When laying out the tank, secure larger pieces of rock using epoxy or zip ties. Your Ribbon can disturb and dislodge the rock while exploring, causing potential collapses. Experts also suggest laying a tunnel network beneath the substrate using PVC piping.
This network gives the eel space to roam. Creating an opening to the surface of your tank floor at a 45-degree angle will simulate the eel’s natural habitat, possibly reducing its stress level.
Common Possible Diseases
The most common health issue affecting Ribbon Eels is ammonia and nitrate poisoning. These inorganic compounds are an unavoidable byproduct of keeping fish. Adequate filtration and water flow are essential for maintaining tolerable levels. Ribbon Eels’ finicky eating behavior and relatively short captive life span make it challenging to nurse them back to health.
While Ribbons are predatory carnivores, they are not particularly aggressive. Their long bodies make them vulnerable to attack from large, aggressive fish and other predators. While it’s possible to keep Ribbons with other species of eels, your thin Ribbons may be attacked over a conflict for space in the rocks.
Food & Diet
The diet of ribbons eels is a bit challenging since it is difficult to keep them nourished. They are picky eaters. Many eels will starve to death as they continually reject food. In general, eels eat anything that will fit in their mouths, including fish or invertebrates. Ribbons should not reside with Clownfish, Damselfish, Gobies (we love the Mandarin Goby), or other smaller species.
When selecting your Ribbon, it’s always best to ask the seller for a feeding demonstration. The eels available for sale are always wild-caught, so they must be taught to accept food. You will likely have the most success with a juvenile Ribbon. They will be the easiest to condition to hunt in your tank or accept dead food. Females are the most challenging to keep because they are the oldest and have difficulty adjusting to tank life.
Great introductory foods include live Rosy Reds, Guppies, or small Goldfish (see Types of Goldfish). Brightly colored fish are an excellent option because Ribbons have poor eyesight and hunt primarily by scent. Vivid-colored fish will maximize perception. These species are freshwater fish and will not adapt to your tank if the eel doesn’t consume them promptly.
Mollies are another excellent option. They are a good size, relatively cheap, and can adapt to saltwater. Mollies also come in many colors, so you can attempt to engage your eel by trial and error until you find the correct prey.
If your tank can accommodate multiple Ribbon Eels, this will increase your success rate. Males live together peacefully and even share tunnels and holes. Having a group of eels initiates a feeding-frenzy response that may coax the entire group to eat.
You can attempt to nourish your Ribbon with dead fish or seafood on a feeding stick, but many aquarists find that the eel will not engage. Choosing the smallest feeding stick and waving the food at the entrance to the fish’s cave may draw it out.
Author Note: Placing the food in front of the eel increases the chance of it catching the scent. Calamari, shrimp, mussels, fish, and silversides are all viable options. Varying the fish’s diet will help keep them engaged with feedings.
Behavior & Temperament
Ribbons are predatory carnivores who are considered semi-aggressive. They are most active during the daytime. They generally spend their time in tunnel systems or among the rocks, taking advantage of the shelter. If hungry and adapted to your tank, they will snatch out for bite-size fish that swim past them.
These eels are relatively territorial and snap at other fish attempting to enter or even approach their hiding spot. More overt aggression is generally only displayed when the eel is stressed by a lack of hiding spots, which leaves it feeling vulnerable.
Ribbon Eel Mates
Ribbon Eels make excellent tank mates for each other, provided there is adequate space. Groups of males are relatively docile toward one another. Keeping two or more male eels can make it easier to tempt them to feed.
Any species of fish that grows too large for the Ribbon to eat is an acceptable tank mate.
Solid options include:
- Angelfish (see this Emperor Angelfish)
The eel will keep to the bottom to hunt and won’t engage with larger species. Be sure to monitor feedings if you stock the tank with live food. Ribbons usually won’t compete with other predatory fish for prey.
Breeding Ribbon Eels in captivity is rare. Biologists have observed successfully fertilized eggs in aquariums, but the young did not survive beyond the larval stage. Males and females only interact to mate, further complicating breeding because you must have a tank size to accommodate both eels.
After the male fertilizes the female’s eggs and they mature, she releases leptocephali, a leaf-shaped transparent larva. The tiny leptocephali rise to the surface, where they consume dissolved nutrients. Eventually, they develop into elvers and journey beneath the surface to find a rocky habitat. Juvenile Ribbon Eels are solitary.
Other Ribbon Eels
Ribbon eels belong to the Moray family, a well-adapted fish that is an excellent hunter and thrives in the wild in reefs and lagoons. Relatives include:
White Ribbon Eel
Known scientifically as Pseudechidna brummeri, the White Ribbon or Ghost Eel is native to the reefs and lagoons of the Western Pacific. These eels are also thin but only reach about 40 inches long. They have white bodies with black-dotted heads and faces. White Ribbons sometimes become a light brown color as they age. Unlike their relatives, they are nocturnal.
These eels are considered easier to keep than Ribbons but have the same initial challenge of establishing a feeding routine. They can be conditioned to accept dead seafood but will also eat small crustaceans.
Snowflake Morays or Echidna nebulosa, another member of the Muraenidae family, are white with a splotchy black pattern across their bodies. They only reach 24 inches long. As with all Morays, they thrive when they have ample hiding space among rocks. Unlike Ribbon Eels, they have blunt teeth used to crush the shells of the crustaceans and invertebrates they prey on.
The Ribbon Eel might not be the easiest fish to add to your aquarium but if you are an expert or know one then you should be able to handle it. Don’t forget to regularly check our guides as we might have some other tips for eels and saltwater fish, and as always, please don’t forget to share your stories of how you have been taking care of your aquarium.