Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Creature Feature: Macrotrema/Swamp Eels.

A lot of people will probably see me as crazy, immature, or both for secretly liking Yu-Gi-Oh! The game is a broken mess of OTK's and shiny cards that are way too hard to get, ZeXal scares me proper, and yet cool monsters are cool enough to keep me intrigued. Admittedly, now it's become a game of humans and dragons, but it used to have an amazing amount of monster variety. This one in particular got me thinking:

OK, I get the point that it's a fish, but what's a "macrotrema," anyways? YGO tends to pick on weird fish, but this one was so weird that I had to look it up. After I looked it up, I kept the card for a bit as a sort of "well, that was interesting" trophy.

It turns out there are several things with "macrotrema" in their names. Given that the card was called "big eel" in the Japanese game, however, I'm inclined to believe that the creators were going off of the Macrotrema eels native to Asia. There is only one species, Macrotrema caligans, but since it is horribly hard to find information on (seriously, most of the hits for "Macrotrema" are of the trading card), this entry will also cover some other members of Synbranchidae. They are also called "mud eels" and "swamp eels," hinting that it would be darn near impossible to find a real deep-sea Macrotrema. As the name "mud eel" would imply, this weird pink fish lives in the muddy beds of estuaries in Asia. The whole family Synbranchidae has members in Mexico, South America, Africa, and in Asia from India to China, making the Ganges River slightly creepier than it already was.

Not a Macrotrema. Still a swamp eel and probably close enough.

Swamp eels resemble worms with spinal cords more than any type of fish. They're pink, live in mud, and barely have fins as adults. As with most cave-dwelling animals, the eyes are small; when you live in mud, sight is not a big issue. They're even proper hermaphrodites, starting their lives as ladies and becoming male after four years. (For the record, a whole group of creatures, tunicates, does the same thing.)  In other words, they're weird even by eel standards, and eels are already darn weird.

Nobody is really sure how far swamp eels go back in the fossil record, but they probably resemble some of the first air-breathing fish that gave rise to amphibians. Although they start life with skin that takes in oxygen (sound familiar?) and fins, both of these features regress as the fish matures.  The throat of a swamp eel is adapted into a primitive, but efficient lung. Like mudskippers, swamp eels can even slither around on land if the soil is wet enough.

Since this entry wound up bleeding into Wednesday, I may as well say it: yes, this eel is edible. China, one of the few places infamous for eating anything,  uses swamp eels in stir-fries with garlic and soy sauce. Given its distribution, it is probably enjoyed in other parts of the world as well.

I'm not sure what to think about most peoples' knowledge of swamp eels coming from a single trading card. Konami didn't have accuracy in mind, but, to be honest, they made these not-lungfish look cooler than their real-life counterparts. The real Macrotrema and swamp eels in general are pretty neat animals, too.

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