Sometimes when I find an animal to blog about I’m surprised I haven’t written about it before. This usually leads to me frantically searching through my former posts to double- and triple-check that I have not, in fact, blogged about said animal before. Today’s animal is one of the those, the electric eel. How can I not have written about such a strange and wonderful creature yet?

Electric eels aren’t actually eels — they are knifefish (I have written about one of these, the Black Ghost Knifefish (Apteronotus albifrons)). They are so weird that they are placed in their own genus, Electrophorus. Electric eels live in fresh water, and can be found in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers. They prefer to hang out at the bottoms of rivers and swamps, and the muddier the water, the better. They like areas with lots of shade for protection, and can survive in waters with low oxygen thanks to their air breathing capabilities.

An electric eel hanging out in some foliage.
Image by Steven G. Johnson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reason electric eels are commonly thought to be eels is pretty obvious. They look almost exactly like an eel, being long and thin without the fins most fish wear so proudly. Electric eels can grow up to 2.5 metres in length, and the first twenty percent of the fish contains all of the eel’s vital organs. Though they have gills, electric eels cannot get all their oxygen from the water, and so must surface to breathe. They get about 80% of their oxygen from air breathing.

The remaining length of the eel’s body is dedicated to producing electricity. These guys are kings of electricity, with three different organs that create electricity. Using these, the eels can make both high and low voltage discharges. Electric eels can produce a shock of up to 600 volts and 1 ampere of current. Though the shocks are painful to people (and can be felt from a ways away, thanks to the conducting power of water), they are not enough to kill an adult human, thanks to the short duration of the shocks (2 milliseconds).

Electric eels are polarized – the front end is positively charges while the tail is negative. They’re basically giant batteries.
Image by Sakura1994, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Electric eels use their electric powers for a number of purposes. Of course, self-defence is a key purpose; I think it would take some guts to try and eat a fish that can shock you with 600 volts. The eels also use their electricity for hunting, with low voltage shocks from the Sach’s organ to electrolocate, and high voltage shocks to stun prey. Of course, the shocks could also hurt the eel producing them, so electric eels are covered in a slimy skin that protects them from being zapped.

Reproduction in electric eels occurs during the dry season. Electric signals are used by the fish to find mates, because why be called the electric eel if you aren’t going to use electricity for absolutely everything? The female lays her eggs in a nest of saliva produced by the male. Once the eggs are laid, the male guards them against any potential predators.

I’ve always thought that electricity is super cool — if I had a superpower it would definitely be control over electricity. The fact that a fish pretty much already has this superpower makes me more than a little jealous. Maybe in my next life I will be reincarnated as an electric eel.

Cover image by opencage, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit