Electric eels jump out of the water to intensify their shock power.

By Seriously Science | June 9, 2016 6:00 am
Image: Flickr/ravas51

Image: Flickr/ravas51

Professor Kenneth Catania from Vanderbilt University has proven a 200 hundred year-old yarn about electric eels that had long been dismissed as fantasy. In the early 1800s, the Prussian natural historian Alexander von Humboldt traveled through South America, using his experiences there as foundation for the books that brought him fame. One episode that particularly caught the imaginations of his fans described electric eels jumping out of the water to electrocute horses. Since then, this behavior has not been documented, leading many scientists to doubt the historian’s account. Here, Dr. Catania shows that when threatened, electric eels do, in fact, leap out of the water to increase the power of their shock:

The behavior consists of an approach and leap out of the water during which the eel presses its chin against a threatening conductor while discharging high-voltage volleys. The effect is to short-circuit the electric organ through the threat, with increasing power diverted to the threat as the eel attains greater height during the leap.

Dr. Catania included a few shocking videos showing an electric eel leaping out of the water and electrocuting threats–in this case, a human arm and a crocodile head. Good thing they’re fake!

Leaping eels electrify threats, supporting Humboldt’s account of a battle with horses

“In March 1800, Alexander von Humboldt observed the extraordinary spectacle of native fisherman collecting electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) by “fishing with horses”. The strategy was to herd horses into a pool containing electric eels, provoking the eels to attack by pressing themselves against the horses while discharging. Once the eels were exhausted, they could be safely collected. This legendary tale of South American adventures helped propel Humboldt to fame and has been recounted and illustrated in many publications, but subsequent investigators have been skeptical, and no similar eel behavior has been reported in more than 200 years. Here I report a defensive eel behavior that supports Humboldt’s account. The behavior consists of an approach and leap out of the water during which the eel presses its chin against a threatening conductor while discharging high-voltage volleys. The effect is to short-circuit the electric organ through the threat, with increasing power diverted to the threat as the eel attains greater height during the leap. Measurement of voltages and current during the behavior, and assessment of the equivalent circuit, reveal the effectiveness of the behavior and the basis for its natural selection.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: fun with animals, told you so
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