Creature Feature: Electric Eel
Electric eels are incredible animals, but they’re not truly eels at all! They’re actually a species of knifefish.
Shocked? That’s the electric eel’s specialty.
Electric eels can produce up to 600 volts of electric energy that can be used for hunting, defense, and navigation. The voltage comes from three electrical organs, inside of which are thousands of electrocytes, or specialized cells that create electric currents.
Here at the New England Aquarium, there is a bar over the electric eel’s exhibit that depicts an intensity scale, so you can actually see (and hear) how much electricity is being given off at any time! Electric eels can control the strength of the shocks they produce (weakest electrical currents for communication; strongest for hunting). From behind the scenes, worms are sporadically dropped into the exhibit, and the first portion of the intensity bar lights up while the electric eel sends out small currents of electricity to search for them. Then, with a crackle, the indicator light jumps to the end of the bar as the hunter closes in on its prey. When there are no sounds or flashing lights coming from the tank, the electric eel is at rest.
You may spot our electric eel occasionally hanging around the surface of its tank, catching a breath. This is a completely normal and mandatory behavior, even though it seems a little counterintuitive for a fish. In the wild, electric eels spend their lives in the freshwater of South America but must go to the surface frequently to fill their lungs with gulps of air.
In addition to possessing fascinating abilities and behaviors, electric eels are of high interest to humans in the scientific community. Scientists have recently started developing batteries that are soft and bendable, inspired by the electrocytes of electric eels. These batteries could power devices such as pacemakers, putting these fish at the heart – literally – of biomimicry (products and systems created using biological sources as inspiration).
Be sure to stop by our Freshwater Gallery, located on Level 3, and check out this rEELy cool creature!