As I was scanning journal articles a few days back, I came across one titled “Unexpected species diversity in electric eels with a description of the strongest living bioelectricity generator.” The article has many authors, as most journal articles do nowadays. I was hooked by part of their title “strongest living bioelectricity generator” — this had to be good.
Electric eels have always fascinated me. The ability to generate enough electricity to stun prey or defend yourself from predators is a fascinating adaptation. I should note that electric eels are not actually eels at all. They belong to a family of fish known as knife fish. They are more related to a catfish than an eel. This article only adds to their legendary ability.
One main argument in the article focuses on the fact that we have been calling electric eels all one species since Carolus Linnaeus first described them more than 250 years ago, electrophorus electricus. The authors pull together new data based on the genetics of the organism, their ecology and physical features using tools not available to Linnaeus in his time. The authors make the case for reorganizing this one species into three distinct species.
Reorganizing the taxonomic classification of life in the light of new data is a great display of the nature of science. We evolve with new data, assuming it makes a good enough argument to change.
The other main point and “cool factor” of the article discusses the fishes’ ability to produce a very strong electric discharge, which is often used in both predation and defense. The previous record for an electric eel was 650 volts, shockingly strong! However, one of the newly described species, E. voltai, can reach lengths over 2 meters and produce an electric discharge of 850 volts, smashing the previous record. This was quite shocking to scientists.
Electric eels accomplish this feat by having special disc-shaped electrocyte cells arranged like a battery along their body. Each cell can only produce a small discharge, similar to the same discharge our muscles produce and done in the same basic way. Our muscles will contract when we discharge our electrical ability but the eel’s cells do not contract they just release the electricity. Imagine thousands of these cells lined up end to end as if you were stacking batteries together in a flashlight. Discharging them all at once is what produces the very short and powerful shock of the electric eel. I encourage you to explore the eel’s abilities more online and investigate how they get away without stunning themselves to death.
Nature Communications is an open-access part of the famous journal “Nature.” You can simply Google “Nature Communications” or type in this link into your browser of choice, https://www.nature.com/ncomms/. Once you arrive at their webpage, you find amazing resources for keeping up with many of the happenings in science. You can scroll through articles by topic or search a specific keyphrase. It is a very user-friendly webpage.
Dr. Jack Brown is the Paris Junior College Science Division chairman. His science articles is published every Friday.