The first electric eel was discovered by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, well before the invention of the light bulb. In fact, the discovery of the electric eel is credited, in part with stimulating research on electricity.
Now, researchers in Brazil have discovered not one, but two new species of electric eel, and they are even more impressive than the original. But first, some facts about electric eels.
What is an ‘electric eel’?
For one thing, they aren’t even true eels! They are considered to be ‘knifefishes’, more closely related to catfish and carp than other eels. But, the lack of pelvic fins and a dorsal fin give the electric eel a remarkably eel-like appearance.
Are there other electric fish out there?
Yes! Elephant fish are found in freshwater and have a special organ for producing electricity, which it uses to navigate its environment. But the elephant fish’s electrical abilities pale in comparison to that of the electric eel. There’s also the electric catfish, native to tropical Africa, and the torpedo ray, which while not a true fish, can also produce impressive electrical shocks, and is the namesake of the navel weapon, the torpedo.
How does an electric eel produce a shock?
The electric eel has three electricity-producing organs, the Sachs’ Organ, the Hunter’s Organ, and the Main Organ, which together make up about 80% of the fish’s body. The organs are each made up of electrocytes, which function like modern batteries by creating differences in electric potential that can generate a powerful shock.
Why do electric eels have such powerful electric-shock capabilities?
Like the elephant fish, the electric eel produces currents to sense its surroundings and search for prey. However, the electric eel can also produce extra high-voltage shocks to immobilize prey – an ability for which the electric eel is famous.
Now, thanks to new research, what was thought to be a single electric eel species has been revealed to be three.
Researchers analyzed the DNA, morphology, and shock-power of the electric eel, and discovered enough differences to constitute three different species. One of the newly-described electric eels, Electrophorus voltai, even broke the shock record, producing a discharge of 860 volts – the highest found in any animal.
“The discovery of new electric eel species in Amazonia, one of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots, is suggestive of the vast amount of species that remain to be discovered in nature” said Dr. Carlos David de Santana, lead author of the study. “Furthermore, the region is of great interest to other scientific fields, such as medicine and biotechnology, reinforcing the need to protect and conserve it…”
Current research seeks to further understand the enzymes produced by the fish’s electric organs for medical applications relevant to Alzheimer’s disease, prosthetic batteries, and human sensor implants.