This intense slow-motion video, depicting an electric eel jumping from a tank to zap a faux alligator head, accompanies a new scientific paper by Vanderbilt University biologist Kenneth Catania. From Nature:
Catania first spotted the behaviour during earlier laboratory experiments with electric eels (Electrophorus electricus), when they would leap upwards to attack a metal-rimmed net as he was trying to fish them out of their tanks. He analysed it by presenting the eels with carbon rods and aluminium plates at which they struck; the video’s plastic alligator, with its flashing light-emitting diodes that are powered by the eel’s electrocution, is his dramatic demonstration of the effect...
The behaviour allows eels to directly shock their opponents, rather than having their voltage dissipated by water.
It is the first time that this has been recorded in a research paper, Catania says — although he argues that his discovery supports a widely disbelieved observation made more than 200 years ago by the Prussian explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. In a paper published in 1807, von Humboldt recounted that he had seen South American native fishermen herding horses into a pool of electric eels; the eels would discharge themselves against the horses and could be fished safely when they were exhausted.
According to Catania, there are other mysteries of the electric eels left to be solved, like how it can electrocute another creature without zapping itself in the process.
"Leaping eels electrify threats, supporting Humboldt’s account of a battle with horses" (PNAS)
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