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Morays Not Lampreys (Correction)

By jml - Posted on 03 January 2010

I am the author of the German versions of the moray eel articles published in the English Coral Magazine Sep/Oct, 2009.

I was asked about what I wrote on lampreys in the introduction article. I told the questioner I didn't write anything about lampreys, but having a look at the English article online I seem to be wrong.

In the original version I mentioned the morays of Vedius Pollio, who sent slaves "ad muraenas". The idea that "muraena" means "lamprey" (lat. lamprea) in this context may be widespread in more or less modern literature and the internet, but seems not very probable from my point of view.

The illustrations from Pollio's time in addition to a number of further Roman literature references (learned Latin for 5 years) time show morays (specifically Muraena helena) to be the "muraena". Also, the idea that lampreys could eat/severely hurt a human seems quite daring to me.

While Muraena helena bites can be related to open blood vessels and missing pieces of flesh (compare to various moray eel incidents in  the article; further literature such as "The emergency management of moray eel bites" in the /Annals of Emergency Medicine/, Volume 21, Issue 2, Pages 212-216 by Erickson et al. or have a dive below aquaculture facilities with larger agglomerations of Muraena helena waiting for dead fish falling down to the bottom of the breeding nets), a review of lamprey bites (e.g. a famous case in the Baltic sea August 2009) will indicate that they are hardly dangerous, more abrasions than real wounds and - in contrast to a moray - a lamprey is easily shook off.

In other words, the lamprey version of the story does not make much sense.

Kind regards,

Dr. Marco Lichtenberger, Dipl-Geol.
Scientific consultant
Lindenstr. 4
74821 Mosbach-Lohrbach

Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) on a Lake Trout.
Courtesy Great Lakes Fishery Commission.


This error was introduced by a copy editor who had used a reference to the accounts of a writer named Tertullian. At some point in the past, "muraenas" was mistakenly translated as "lampreys," and the errors have proliferated on the internet.

We have corrected the main reference on Wikipedia to fix the most widely accessed reference to maneating lampreys and offer our sincere apologies to Dr. Lichtenberger.

Mary Bailey, our fine translator based in Dorset, England, had nothing to do with this error, but she decided to go back to the original Latin and soon unearthed some enlightening information:

"Amazing what you can find if you look. 

"This is the original Latin from L. ANNAEI SENECAE AD NERONEM CAESAREM DE CLEMENTIA (L. Annaeus Seneca to Nero Caesar on clemency, usually known as Seneca's De Clementia).  I have to admit I had forgotten, Pliny was around when the alleged events happened, Seneca was adviser to Nero, rather later.  My researches indicate that Seneca was referring to the story in Pliny when he wrote this.

1. Servis imperare moderate laus est. Et in mancipio cogitandum est, non quantum illud impune possit pati, sed quantum tibi permittat aequi bonique natura, quae parcere etiam captivis et pretio paratis iubet. Quanto iustius iubet hominibus liberis, ingenuis, honestis non ut mancipiis abuti sed ut his, quos gradu antecedas quorumque tibi non servitus tradita sit, sed tutela. 2. Servis ad statuam licet confugere; cum in servum omnia liceant, est aliquid, quod in hominem licere commune ius animantium vetet. Quis non Vedium Pollionem peius oderat quam servi sui, quod muraenas sanguine humano saginabat et eos, qui se aliquid offenderant, in vivarium, quid aliud quam serpentium, abici iubebat? O hominem mille mortibus dignum, sive devorandos servos obiciebat muraenis, quas esurus erat, sive in hoc tantum illas alebat, ut sic aleret.

"The red bold is mine. It's basically saying, 'Who wouldn't think Vedius Pollio a right bastard for feeding his morays on human blood and chucking his servants to the morays if they (the servants) offended him in any way.'   I imagine that because Seneca mentions blood, and lampreys suck blood, some "genius" somewhere decided that Seneca (and possibly Pliny) didn't mean morays but lampreys."

Corrected Morays Article excerpt.

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