Quirks & Quarks

Electric eels leap to make shocking attacks

Eel's leap allows it to increase the intensity of its electrical jolt, and likely helps in defence against land-based predators

Eel's leap allows it to increase the intensity of its electrical jolt

Historic illustration of electric eels attacking horses, as observed by explorer Alexander von Humboldt
When Dr. Ken Catania, a biologist from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, saw an electric eel in a laboratory aquarium raising itself out of the water to attack the handle of a metal net, he knew he needed to know more.  

His follow-up experiment found that when electric eels are threatened, they are able to leap out of the water onto the perceived attacker on land.  As they do this, they are able to increase the voltage of their electrical discharge. When the eel discharges electricity while completely submerged, the water dissipates the effect.

This study proves a once doubted observation from over 200 years ago by naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who claimed to have seen electric eels attacking horses on land beside pools of water.

Related Links

Paper in PNAS
- Vanderbilt University release
CBC News story

- Nature news story
- National Geographic story
The Atlantic story


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