[Jordan and Evermann, 1896-1900, p. 369.]
The snipe eel is easily recognizable by its extremely slender body (the fish may be 75 times as long as deep), with its tail tapering to a thread, and by its elongate, slender, bill-like jaws, one as long as the other, the upper one curving upward, but the lower more nearly [page 160] straight. The head is much deeper than the neck, with large eyes. The dorsal fin originates in front of the pectorals, the anal about abreast of the tip of the pectorals, and both dorsal and anal run back to the tip of the tail.
There has been some confusion in the published accounts and illustrations as to the dorsal and anal fins, for while Vaillant shows both as about as high throughout their length as the fish is deep, Goode and Bean picture the dorsal as much higher than the anal (the artist evidently having transposed the two fins), whereas Brauer represents the anal as approximately twice as high as the dorsal and the latter as soft rayed in its anterior and posterior portions but composed of short thorn-like spines along its central third. The fins of two specimens taken off New England, now in the collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology are as follows:
Dorsal, soft-rayed and nearly as high as the body is deep for its first half; back of that it consists of a series of very short, stiff rays that extend to the tip of the tail.
Anal, soft-rayed throughout its length and about as high as the body is deep, tapering to almost nothing on the tail.
The confusion has been due in part to the rather fragmentary state in which these deep-water fish usually arrive on board, but at the same time it is probable that two distinct species have been confused under the name scolopaceus, as Brauer suspected.
Described as pale to dark brown above with the belly and anal fin blackish after preservation. Judging from experience with other deep-sea fishes and from Brauer's plate (which, however, may be another species), we suspect that it is chocolate brown above in life and velvety black below.
Maximum length about 3 feet.
Although commonly spoken of as a "deep-sea" fish, this species is undoubtedly an inhabitant of the mid depths, not of the bottom, and judging from the occurrence of other black fishes it probably finds its upper limit at 100 to 200 fathoms. Nothing further is known of its habits, but Mowbray's capture near Bermuda of a snipe eel clinging by its jaws to the tail of a large red snapper has suggested that such may be a regular habit of this curious species.
The snipe eel has been taken in deep water at many stations off the east coast of North America between latitudes 31° and 42°N., longitudes 65° and 75°W.; also in the South Atlantic; near the Azores; near Madeira; off the Cape Verde Islands; off West Africa; and in the Pacific of New Guinea.
One specimen taken from the stomach of a codfish caught on Georges Bank in 45 fathoms is the only Gulf of Maine record, but several have been taken in depths of from 300 to 2,000 fathoms on the seaward slope of the bank.