Strong pulses of electricity arc away from Electrophorus electricus as it eyes its next meal. Its target’s muscles contract as the electric current courses through its body. Then, the electric eel swoops in for the easy lunch.
Kenneth Catania, a biologist at Vanderbilt University, made the discovery after recording captive electric eels with a high-speed camera. Electric eels using electricity is no surprise, but the mechanism behind the electric attack has eluded scientists.
Catania compares the electric eel’s attack with a taser. “I was struck by the similarity between the eel’s volley and a Taser discharge,” Catania said.
“A Taser delivers 19 high-voltage pulses per second while the electric eel produces 400 pulses per second.”
The eel’s ‘taser’ overwhelmed the muscles in the target’s body from a distance. Electric eels are incredibly sensitive to movement in water. By activating the electric pulse, the target fish’s body will contract causing a sudden movement – which leads the eel right to its prey. Here’s a video demonstrating the eel’s ‘taser’ in action. Catania converted the electric pulses to sound so you can see exact moment the eel activates its ‘taser.’
“If you take a step back and think about it, what the eel can do is extremely remarkable,” said Catania. “It can use its electrical system to take remote control of its prey’s body. If a fish is hiding nearby, the eel can force it to twitch, giving away its location, and if the eel is ready to capture a fish, it can paralyze it so it can’t escape.”
Electric eels aren’t the only animal to harness electricity. The elephantnose fish, platypus, sharks and rays, electric catfish and oriental hornets use electricity in various ways. National Geographic has a great article highlighting some of these animals and how they use electricity.