March 19, 2011

Electric Eels Discovered!

On this date in 1800, two scientists captured and studied some eel-like fish in a swamp in South America. They received massive shocks for their trouble!

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland, German and French biologists, were on a 5-year expedition in the jungles of South America when they happened on the “electric eels” (which are not actually eels, but rather knifefish).

Electric eels have three pairs of organs that produce electricity. They can generate low-voltage and high-voltage charges, producing electricity in a similar way to a battery. The shocks produced can go as high as 600 volts, enough to kill a human adult. These fish deliberately use lower voltages when hunting but sometimes use the higher voltages when defending themselves.

Surprisingly, the fish use electricity in other ways, too. They use low voltage charges to sense prey and other objects in muddy streams, and to communicate with each other.

I have read that the electric organs are “only in the tail” of the electric eel. But the tail is four-fifths of the critter's body!

Males of this species make nests out of their saliva, into which the females lay their eggs. Each nest contains up to 17,000 young.


Watch this bit about people harnessing the power of the electric eel to light a Christmas tree. 

Get crafty! Here are instructions to make an “electrifying eel” out of a paper plate. 

Find out more here or here.  

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