There’s a reason you won’t find electric eels at your local petting zoo: these fierce creatures can release over 800 volts of electricity! That’s gotta hurt. But how are these powerful shocks made?
Electricity is a big part of an eel’s make up—literally. An eel’s vital organs are all tightly packed in at the front of its body. The rest of the eel—about eighty percent of its total length!—is dedicated to three electricity-producing organs. The two biggest of these organs generate high-voltage shocks, which the eel uses to hunt or scare away predators. The third organ, at the back of the eel, creates small electric pulses, letting the eel communicate and navigate its murky home.
All three organs rely on modified muscle cells called electrocytes. These cells are basically miniature batteries: they store and produce electricity. The cells work in sync. When one cell discharges a current, all the others do too.
Eels are excellent at controlling the jolts they release. Since these creatures are mostly blind, small electrical pulses act like radar, telling the eel about its environment. But it’s the big jolts you have to watch out for. When an eel wants to eat, it sends out two quick pulses. The pulses make any nearby prey violently twitch, revealing the prey’s location. The eel then emits hundreds of high-voltage shocks, rapidly stunning its victim. Then, chomp! Dinner is served.
Scientists used to think that eels were solitary creatures. New evidence, though, suggests they may hunt in groups. That’s a lot of electricity in the water. So please—don’t try to pet an eel.