Have you ever seen a garden full of eels? I picture a pretty rose garden with a bucket of slimy, wriggling eels poured all over it. It would be pretty gross. But there are actual eel ‘gardens’, and they are much more beautiful than you might think.

There are around 35 species of garden eel, organized into the subfamily Heterocongrinae. Garden eels prefer warm waters, with most species being found in the Indo-Pacific, and some in the Atlantic. These eels require sandy bottoms to burrow in, and like areas where there are lots of sea currents.

A pair of spotted garden eels in their burrows. Image by Johan Fredriksson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Garden eels can get as big as 120 cm in length, but most are on the smaller side. They look quite eel-like, with long, thin bodies and no obvious fins. They come in an amazing variety of colours and patterns, from white-green with pretty black spots to yellow with white stripes.

So what makes garden eels different from other types of eel? Do they cultivate beautiful gardens of seaweed and other aquatic plants? Well, not really. You see, in these gardens, the eels themselves are the plants. Garden eels have a very peculiar way of living. They dig burrows in the soft, sandy ocean floor, stick their heads out, and then simply wait. The lovely ocean currents bring the eels drifting bits of food, and the eels rarely leave their burrows. They tend to live in colonies, so all the eel heads swaying in the currents look a lot like a garden.

A bunch of garden eels hanging out. From far away a colony looks like sea grass. Image by For great justice. at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Digging a burrow with your tail isn’t the easiest task – but garden eels have a pretty good way of doing it. The eels make themselves rigid, and then shoot into the ground tail first. Their tails are covered by hard skin, so the eels don’t get injured. Garden eels also secrete a substance that cements the sides of their burrows, so they don’t cave in. When threatened by predators, garden eels simply slip down into the safety of their little homes.

While an on-land garden full of eels might not be a very pretty sight, the underwater ones must be quite spectacular. If I didn’t have a fear of diving in oceans, I would definitely try and go see some garden eels. I’ll have to settle on looking at pictures.

Cover image by Izuzuki, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit