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Reef fish uses specialized, slimy lips to eat venomous coral

Victor Huertas and David Bellwood

Scientists have figured out how one of the world's few coral-eating fish is able to withstand the venomous sting of sharp coral as it feeds: they lubricate their lips with mucous in order to quickly touch the coral and form a suction to remove the flesh. The finding helps ecologists to better understand how fish feeding can affect a reef.

How it works: Using scanning electron microscopy, researchers found the lips of the aptly-named tubelip wrasse are covered in thin mucous-producing membranes similar to the gills of a mushroom. In the fraction of a second the fish feeds, it doesn't latch on to the coral but seals its mouth over it and sucks up the coral's mucous.

"To our knowledge, this type of lip has never been recorded before," James Cook University marine biologist David Bellwood told Reuters.