Snake eels in the Ophichthidae family have long, cylindrical, snakelike bodies and can move backward extremely effectively. Their tails are stiff and sharp, rather than broad and flat, as with morays. The snake eel’s tail is used like an awl to burrow tail-first into sand or mud. The nostrils are located in two short, stout barbels on top of the nose, which the eel uses to probe into crevices and cavities as it searches for food.
Compared to morays and most other eels, snake eels are docile creatures, commonly seen crawling over the bottom like snakes. In most snake eels, the dorsal fins extend almost the full length of their bodies, beginning just behind their heads but stopping short of the tips of their tails. Their anal fins are only about half as long as their bodies, also stopping before the tips of their tails. Pectoral fins are lacking or very small. Only a few of the profuse species reach a length exceeding 3 feet; most of them are less than a foot long.
They are typically brightly colored and are generally strikingly marked with bands, spots, or both. Snake eels are found throughout the world in subtropical and tropical seas, a few ranging into temperate waters. One of the several dozen species in the Atlantic and the Caribbean is the spotted snake eel (Ophichtus ophis), averaging 2 feet in length and occasionally growing to 4 feet. Its yellowish body is covered with large brown spots. The yellow snake eel (O. zophochir) is a similar species that lives in the Pacific. Another genus represented by numerous species is Myrichthys, which includes the sharptail eel (M. acuminatus), in the Atlantic, and the tiger snake eel (M. tigrinus), in the Pacific.