Pharyngeal jaw

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The pharyngeal jaws of the moray eel
Oral and pharyngeal jaws of a cichlid. The photographs show a Malawi eyebiter (Dimidiochromis compressiceps).

Pharyngeal jaws are a "second set" of jaws contained within an animal's throat, or pharynx, distinct from the primary or oral jaws. They are believed to have originated as modified gill arches, in much the same way as oral jaws.


A notable example are fish from the family Cichlidae. Cichlid pharyngeal jaws have become very specialized in prey processing and may have helped cichlid fishes become one of the most diverse families of vertebrates.[1] However, later studies based on Lake Victoria cichlids suggest that this trait may also become a handicap when competing with other predator species.[2]

Moray eels[edit]

Most fish species with pharyngeal teeth do not have extendable pharyngeal jaws. A particularly notable exception is the highly mobile pharyngeal jaw of the moray eels. These are possibly a response to their inability to swallow as other fishes do by creating a negative pressure in the mouth, perhaps induced by their restricted environmental niche (burrows). Instead, when the moray bites prey, it first bites normally with its oral jaws, capturing the prey. Immediately thereafter, the pharyngeal jaws are brought forward and bite down on the prey to grip it; they then retract, pulling the prey down the moray eel's gullet, allowing it to be swallowed.[3]

Popular culture[edit]

The very mobile pharyngeal jaws of moray eels were discovered in 2007 by UC Davis scientists. Almost three decades before (1979), the fictional xenomorph creature from Alien series was first depicted showing a second set of jaws for attacking its prey. However, at that time pharyngeal jaws in other fishes were already known.[4]


  1. ^ Hulsey, C.D.; Garcia de Leon, F.J.; Rodiles-Hernandez, R. (2006). "Micro- and macroevolutionary decoupling of cichlid jaws: A test of Liem's key innovation hypothesis". Evolution. 60 (10): 2096–2109. doi:10.1111/j.0014-3820.2006.tb01847.x.
  2. ^ McGee, Matthew D.; Borstein, Samuel R.; Neches, Russell Y.; Buescher, Heinz H.; Seehausen, Ole; Wainwright, Peter C. (27 November 2015). "A pharyngeal jaw evolutionary innovation facilitated extinction in Lake Victoria cichlids". Science. 350 (6264): 1077–1079. doi:10.1126/science.aab0800. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 26612951.
  3. ^ Mehta, Rita S.; Wainwright, Peter C. (6 September 2007). "Raptorial jaws in the throat help moray eels swallow large prey". Nature. 449 (7158): 79–82. doi:10.1038/nature06062. PMID 17805293. Retrieved 6 September 2007.
  4. ^ Zimmer, Carl (11 September 2007). "If the First Bite Doesn't Do It, the Second One Will". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 3 July 2016.

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