Wolf-eel to be displayed at Alaska SeaLife Center

Posted: Monday, April 29, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A wolf-eel, a serpentine fish with sharp canine teeth and powerful molars, will soon go on display at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

''We've been searching for a wolf-eel for four years,'' said Jamie Thomton, an aquarist with the center. ''We'd like to get one or two more.''

Despite its name, the wolf-eel is actually a fish, one of several species in a family of edible, aggressive ''wolf fish'' from the north Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Though the fish is just 12 inches long now, it will grow to up to 7 feet long and be as big around as a fire hose.

The wolf-eel has been scarfing down meals and preparing to move into a microhabitat in the public area as the center's ''featured creature.''

As it grows to its adult size it will be transferred to the center's Denizens of the Deep exhibit. There it will become the first wolf-eel to lurk in the official wolf-eel tank, which has been housing less fearsome denizens next door to the giant Pacific octopus.

The local species, Anarrhichthys ocellatus, ranges along the Pacific Rim from Japan to California, living in caves and crevices as deep as 700 feet, according to various fish guidebooks. Adults mate for life, each spending time guarding masses of up to 40,000 eggs laid in their holes.

As they age, wolf-eels develop the startling appearance of a fairy-tale monster with lumpy faces, mottled gray skin and big black eyes. Yet they're inquisitive and bold, willing to take snacks from divers in front of an audience.

As a result, wolf-eels are popular in public aquariums Outside. While most institutions get their wolf-eels from other aquariums, Thomton said, Alaska's strict regulations meant the sea life center staff had to collect its own specimens in local waters without using anesthetic.

With more than 200 species of fish and invertebrates on display or in holding tanks, the center regularly sends out some of its 22 certified science divers on collecting missions.

Capturing a toothy adult wolf-eel by hand was too dangerous, and the youngsters were too swift. But on March 28, aquarium curator Robert Hocking was diving with Thomton and another staffer only about 50 yards offshore when he discovered the young wolf-eel lurking under a piece of plywood about 40 feet down, Thomton said.

Hocking snatched it up -- the animal coiled itself around his forearm -- then handed it over to Thomton for a trip to shore.

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