How do Electric eels work? Complete guide

It’s always a mystery with how do electric eels work? Explorer Alexander von Humboldt witnessed a swarm of electric eels leaping out of the water in 1800 to defend against oncoming horses.

Most people thought the story was so unusual that it was composed by Humboldt. But it’s more common to fish using electricity than you might think; and yes, electric eels are a fish type.

Underwater, where light is scarce, electrical signals offer ways of communicating, navigating, and finding—plus stun—prey, in rare cases.

How do Electric eels work?

Electrical eel
Image by Togabi from commons Wikimedia

Fish that generates electric current? Interesting right? Here is a guide on How do electric eels work. Nearly 350 species of fish have anatomical specialized structures that generate and detect electrical signals.

Depending on how much electricity they produce, these fish are split into two groups.

Researchers call the first group the weakly electric fish. Structures close to their tails called electrical organs to generate up to one volt of electricity, about two-thirds as much as an AA battery.

How is that working? The brain of the fish sends a signal throughout the nervous system to the electrical organ, filled with hundreds or thousands of disc-shaped cells called electrocytes.

Electrocytes normally pump out sodium and potassium ions in order to maintain a positive charge outside and a negative charge inside.

But when the electrocyte is reached by the nerve signal, it prompts the ion gates to open. Positively charged ions are flowing back in.

Now, one face of the electrocyte is charged outside negatively and charged inward positively. But the far side has the pattern of charge to the opposite.

These alternating charges can drive a current which makes the electrocyte a biological battery. The key to the powers of these fishes is that they coordinate nerve signals to reach each cell at exactly the same time.

That makes the electrocyte stacks act in series as thousands of batteries. Each of the tiny charges adds up to an electric field that can travel several meters.

Cells called electroreceptors buried in the skin allow this field and changes caused by the surroundings or other fish to be constantly sensed by the fish.

For instance, Peter’s elephant nose fish has an elongated chin in electroreceptors.

This allows it to intercept signals from other fish, assess distances, detect the shape and size of nearby objects and even determine whether an insect buried is dead or alive.

But the nose of the elephant and other weakly electrical fish do not produce enough electricity to attack its prey. That capacity belongs to the heavily electric fish, of which only a handful of species are present.

The electric knife fish, more commonly known as the electric eel, is the strongest strongly electrical fish. Three electrical organs span nearly his entire body of two meters.

Like the weakly electric fish, the electric eel uses its signals to navigate and communicate, but it reserves its strongest electrical discharges for hunting by means of a two-phase attack that susts out and then disables its prey.

Let’s get started!

First, it emits as much as 600 volts, two or three strong pulses. These stimulate the muscles of the prey, sending it into spasms and generating waves that reveal their hiding place.

A volley of fast, high-voltage discharges then causes even more intense contractions in the muscles.

The electrical eel can also curl up so that the electrical fields generated overlap at each end of the electrical organ.

Eventually, the electrical storm exhausts and immobilizes the prey, and the electric eel may swallow its meal alive.

The other two strongly electrical fish are the electrical catfish, which can unleash 350 volts with an electrical organ occupying most of its torso, and the electrical ray, with kidney-shaped electrical organs on either side of its head producing as much as 220 volts.

The world of electric fish has one mystery: why don’t they electrocute themselves?

It may be that the size of strongly electrical fish allows them to withstand their own shocks, or that the current moves too quickly out of their bodies.

Some scientists think that the electrical organs may be shielded by special proteins, but the truth is, this is one science of mysteries that have not yet been illuminated. I hope this guide was able to make you aware of How do electric eels work. 

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