It might not look as grisly as the Guillermo del Toro "eel", but this toothy New Zealand find had locals squirming after a beachgoer stepped on the dead fish in knee-high water. What is it? Plenty of suggestions have been popping up, so we thought we'd narrow it down for you.

Image: Sandy Fenton/used with permission

Sandy Fenton and Murray Milgrew encountered the strange animal while boogie boarding off Kulim Park in Tauranga, on New Zealand's North Island. Possible IDs started to pour in after the pair shared photos to social media, with guesses ranging from the real (snot eel, moray eel, dragonfish and lancetfish) to the mythical (Taniwha water monster).

According to local news outlet SunLiveMilgrew initially thought he'd stepped on the neck of a dead swan underwater. "Neither of us go fishing and we were curious," he said.  "It was soft with no eyes."

Image: Sandy Fenton/used with permission

So, what is it? While identifying an animal in this state of decomposition can be tricky, the dentition tells us this is definitely not a snot eel (more commonly known as a hagfish). We can also rule out the lancetfish and the deep-sea dragonfish. That leaves the morays, a group of eels in the family Muraenidae.

After scanning several eel guides and checking in with a few experts, our best guess is that this particular eel is either Enchelycore ramosa, a species known for its glassy fangs, or a member of the genus Gymnothorax*. "We took it back to shore to examine it," Fenton told us. "The teeth were amazing. So sharp!"

The pearly whites had some commenters chiming in with variations on a Dean Martin classic. "Put your hand in a crack and you don't get it back, it's a moray," one joked.

Moray eels feed mostly on fish, mollusks like cuttlefish and octopus, as well as crabs and other crustaceans. They tend to stay tucked away in cracks and crevices during daylight hours, and while they might not be capable of lopping off an arm, they can be grouchy when cornered – so it's best to give them a wide berth:

In case one set of carapace-crushing jaws isn't enough, these animals also have a second set that sits in the back of the throat. These "pharyngeal jaws" work in tandem with the eel's primary set of chompers to pull slippery prey down into the digestive tract. 

As for the missing eyes in this specimen, we're putting that one down to scavengers, or the onset of post-mortem goo (pigment fades quickly after death). If you look closely at the second photo, you'll notice the carcass has several snails on it – this suggests the animal had been resting in Davy Jones' locker for some time before Milgrew found it.

In the end, the pair tossed the find to the gulls, who didn't seem to have much of an appetite for a demonic-looking glove puppet. 

*UPDATE 29 January, 2016: This is in fact a Gymnothorax eel! We're looking at a grey moray (Gymnothorax nubilus). According to Te Papa Museum fishes collection manager Andrew Stewart, the spiky "fins" on top of the body are bones that have protruded through the skin.



Top header image:  John Turnbull, Flickr