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How Do Eels Produce Electricity?

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Do you know that feeling when you go down the slide and by the time you get to the bottom, all your hair is standing up? And as soon as you get out and touch your friend, you give them a big shock? Well, if you have ever heard of an electric eel, they channel their shocking power to eat and communicate in the water! You can check out this cool video to see how they accomplish this! That doesn’t make a lot of sense though, right? Something electric swimming through the water? Usually, water and electricity don’t mix very well together, but these shocking swimmers are the exception to the rule.

An electric eel on the prowl in the Amazon
An electric eel on the prowl in the Amazon, Credit: flickr.com/ Electric Eel by San Diego Shooter is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

What are electric eels?

Electric eels are a type of fish that only live in freshwater habitats (like lakes, ponds, and rivers). There are three species of electric eels, although Electrophorus electricus is the most common species. The other two, E. voltai and E. varii, are similar, just not as common. Electric eels aren’t even true eels! They’re actually considered a type of knifefish. Knifefish and electric eels are fish, but they don’t look like your typical fish.

 

Electric eels have long, slender, almost snake-like bodies, with a very long anal fin that runs the length of their bodies. They can grow quite large too, up to eight feet (2.5 meters) long. They wiggle through the water in a wave-like motion to swim, using their tail with a lot of force to move. Even though they have a funny way of moving, electric eels are most famously known for their ability to produce electricity.

Electric eels can grow quite long, some even up to 8 feet (2.5 meters)!
Electric eels can grow quite long, some even up to 8 feet (2.5 meters)! Credit: flickr.com/Electric Eel by Elizabeth/Table4Five is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Where do electric eels live?

Electric eels, while not endangered, can be hard to find. They only live in one region in the world, and that’s in the Amazon rainforest in South America. They typically swim in the calmer parts of the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, although they can also be found in ponds, lakes, slow-moving streams, and some flooded forests. Within these bodies of water, they like to live down in the mud where they can hide.

A typical habitat of electric eels, a floodplain or slow-moving river in the Amazon
A typical habitat of electric eels, a floodplain or slow-moving river in the Amazon, Credit: flickr.com/ Amazon River, Peru by Global Water Forum is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It’s electric!

You may be wondering, why are electric eels electric? It’s not so much to boogie-woogie like the song, but to eat and communicate with other eels. The main purpose of their electricity is to help them hunt, and they will use their electricity in a variety of ways to do so. They can’t see very well, so they need to find new strategies to find their prey.

 

First, they may send out a very low voltage pulse, something low enough not to harm anything, to search for prey. If the electricity bounces off something, that means they may have found dinner! Next, they will send out stronger short pulses, like little bursts of energy, to shock their prey. They can do this to stun their prey so they can capture it, wrapping it up in their tail to concentrate their power, and then shock it a final time to paralyze and eat it.

 

Other uses of their electricity include finding mates and defending themselves from predators. Similar to the way they search for their prey, electric eels will look for a mate by sending out low-voltage, harmless electric pulses. They use the electricity to communicate and can tell if another electric eel is interested in mating with them through their electric responses back. They also use their electric abilities to defend themselves from predators. If they feel threatened, they will send out their strongest shock. As a last resort, they may even leap out of the water to attack their predator.

These fish are quite powerful and can shock you at up to 860 volts!
These fish are quite powerful and can shock you at up to 860 volts! Credit: flickr.com/Electric Eel by Travis S. is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

All charged up – how electric eels produce electricity!

Now you may be wondering just how powerful these electric eels are. Some species, such as E. voltai, can give off shocks as strong as 860 volts! That’s more than enough to knock a horse off its feet. The other electric eel species don’t give off shocks that strong, at 450 to 600 volts.

 

Electric eels produce their electricity through three organs that take up most of their body space: the main electric organ, the Hunter’s organ, and the Sachs’ organ. The main electric organ and part of the Hunter’s organ produce the strongest charges, while the other part of the Hunter’s organ and the Sachs’ organ produce the weaker charges. The eels generate this electricity through cells in their organs called electrocytes which are powered through signals they send from their brains to switch the charges and create a shock.

 

When they’re not out hunting or looking for mates, electric eels like to rest and recharge in their muddy waters. Because it takes up so much energy to produce these strong shocks, the electric eels will need time to “recharge” before they can put out a lot of energy again, similar to how we might need to take a nap and eat a snack after a soccer game!

 

Even though they are producing high-energy shocks, electric eels avoid shocking all the water around them, and themselves, by only producing enough energy to affect their prey. They typically eat smaller organisms, like frogs, salamanders, and small fish, so when they are hunting, they only release enough energy to affect that small prey, and not themselves or other large organisms.

 

Electric eels are super cool organisms and even more interesting to study! It’s always fascinating to see how different animals use their powers to live, eat, and reproduce.

Glossary

Electricity – a type of energy made up from the flow of tiny particles called electrons and protons

 

Freshwater – water with low levels of salt, like lakes, rivers, and streams

 

Flooded Forest – forests that sit next to a major river that often flood with water

 

Voltage – the measure of a how strong a current is

 

Electrocytes – a specialized muscle or nerve that generates electricity

Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 68.3

 

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 7.8

5, D. (2005, December 5). How do electric eels generate a voltage and why do they not get shocked in the process? Scientific American. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-electric-eels-gene/#:~:text=To%20cause%20an%20arm%20to,the%20water%20through%20the%20skin.

 

Electric eel. National Aquarium. (n.d.). Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://aqua.org/explore/animals/electric-eel

 

Electric eel. Smithsonian’s National Zoo. (2018, June 27). Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/electric-eel

 

Heimbuch, J. (2022, April 3). 8 shocking facts about electric eels. Treehugger. Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://www.treehugger.com/shocking-facts-about-electric-eels-4863966

 

Magazine, S. (2017, September 18). How strong is a zap from an electric eel? shockingly strong. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/electric-eel-shocks-are-very-strong-180964907/