Electric eel

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Electric eel
Scientific classification

Type species
Electrophorus electricus
(Linnaeus, 1766)

Electrophorus electricus
Electrophorus varii
Electrophorus voltai

Electrophorus is a genus of Neotropical freshwater fish in the family Gymnotidae, commonly called electric eel. Fish in this genus are known as electric eels for their ability to stun their prey by generating electricity. Despite its name, the electric eel is not closely related to the true eels (Anguilliformes) but is a member of the neotropical knifefish order (Gymnotiformes), which is more closely related to the catfish.

It was believed to be a monotypic genus for over two centuries, until the unexpected 2019 discovery of two additional species.


Comparison between the 3 species of Electrophorus.

There are currently three described species:[1]

Taxonomic history

The species is so unusual that it has been reclassified several times. When the species now defined as Electrophorus electricus was originally described by Carl Linnaeus in 1766, he used the name Gymnotus electricus, placing it in the same genus as Gymnotus carapo (banded knifefish) which he had described several years earlier. It was only about a century later, in 1864, that the electric eel was moved to its own genus Electrophorus by Theodore Gill.[3]

Later, the electric eel was considered sufficiently distinct to have its own family, Electrophoridae, but it has since been merged back into the family Gymnotidae, alongside Gymnotus.[4][5][6]

In September 2019, C. David de Santana et al. published work strongly suggesting division of Electrophorus electricus into three species based on DNA divergence, ecology and habitat, anatomy and physiology, and electrical ability. The proposed three species are E. electricus, E. voltai sp. nov., and E. varii sp. nov.[7]


Anatomy of electric eel's organs that produce electricity

Electric eels are air-breathers.

The electric eel has three pairs of abdominal organs that produce electricity: the main organ, Hunter's organ, and Sachs' organ. These organs make up four fifths of its body, and give the electric eel the ability to generate two types of electric organ discharges: low voltage and high voltage. These organs are made of electrocytes, lined up so a current of ions can flow through them and stacked so each one adds to a potential difference.[8]

When the eel finds its prey, the brain sends a signal through the nervous system to the electrocytes. This opens the ion channels, allowing sodium to flow through, reversing the polarity momentarily. By causing a sudden difference in electric potential, it generates an electric current in a manner similar to a battery, in which stacked plates each produce an electric potential difference.[8] Electric eels are also capable of controlling their prey's nervous systems with their electrical abilities; by controlling their victim's nervous system and muscles via electrical pulses, they can keep prey from escaping or force it to move so they can locate its position.[9][10]

In 1839, Michael Faraday extensively tested the electrical properties of an electric eel imported from Suriname. For a span of four months, he carefully and humanely measured the electrical impulses produced by the animal by pressing shaped copper paddles and saddles against the specimen. Through this method, he determined and quantified the direction and magnitude of electric current, and proved the animal's impulses were in fact electrical by observing sparks and deflections on a galvanometer.[11]


It was previously thought that electric eels were solitary animals. However, a study published in January 2021 showed that the most powerful species, the Volta electric eel (Electrophorus voltai) of the Amazon, are capable of hunting in packs. Groups of the animals were observed to coordinate their activities after targeting a shoal of small fish called tetras, then herding them and launching joint strikes on the closely-packed fish.[12][13][14][15][16]


Researchers at Yale University and the National Institute of Standards and Technology argue artificial cells could be built that not only replicate the electrical behavior of electric eel cells, but also improve on them. Artificial versions of the eel's electricity-generating cells could be developed as a power source for medical implants and other microscopic devices.[8]

In zoos and private collections

These fish have always been sought after by some animal collectors, but catching them is difficult, because the only reasonable option is to make the eels tired by continually discharging their electricity.[citation needed] The fish's electric organs eventually become completely discharged, allowing the collector to wade into the water in comparative safety.[17]

Keeping electric eels in captivity is difficult and mostly limited to zoos and aquaria, although a few hobbyists have kept them as pets.

The Tennessee Aquarium in the United States is home to an electric eel. Named Miguel Wattson, the eel's exhibit is wired to a small computer that sends out a prewritten tweet when it emits electricity at a high enough threshold.[18][19]


  1. 1.0 1.1 de Santana, C. David; Crampton, William G. R.; et al. (2019-09-10). "Unexpected species diversity in electric eels with a description of the strongest living bioelectricity generator". Nature Communications (in English). 10 (1): 4000. Bibcode:2019NatCo..10.4000D. doi:10.1038/s41467-019-11690-z. ISSN 2041-1723. PMC 6736962. PMID 31506444.
  2. Oliveira, Marcos S. B.; Mendes‐Júnior, Raimundo N. G.; Tavares‐Dias, Marcos (2019-09-10). "Diet composition of the electric eel Electrophorus voltai (Pisces: Gymnotidae) in the Brazilian Amazon region". Journal of Fish Biology. 97 (4): 1220–1223. doi:10.1111/jfb.14413. ISSN 0022-1112. PMID 32463115.
  3. Jordan DS (1963). The Genera of Fishes and a Classification of Fishes. Stanford University Press. p. 330.
  4. Nelson JS, Grande TC, Wilson MV (2016). Fishes of the World (5 ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 978-1118342336.
  5. van der Sleen P, Albert JS, eds. (2017). Field Guide to the Fishes of the Amazon, Orinoco, and Guianas. Princeton University Press. pp. 330–334. ISBN 978-0691170749.
  6. Ferraris Jr CJ, de Santana CD, Vari RP (2017). "Checklist of Gymnotiformes (Osteichthyes: Ostariophysi) and catalogue of primary types". Neotrop. Ichthyol. 15 (1). doi:10.1590/1982-0224-20160067.
  7. de Santana CD, Crampton WG, Dillman CB, Frederico RG, Sabaj MH, Covain R, et al. (September 2019). "Unexpected species diversity in electric eels with a description of the strongest living bioelectricity generator" (PDF). Nature Communications. 10 (1): 4000. Bibcode:2019NatCo..10.4000D. doi:10.1038/s41467-019-11690-z. PMC 6736962. PMID 31506444. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-09-10. Retrieved 2019-09-10.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Xu J, Lavan DA (November 2008). "Designing artificial cells to harness the biological ion concentration gradient". Nature Nanotechnology. 3 (11): 666–70. Bibcode:2008NatNa...3..666X. doi:10.1038/nnano.2008.274. PMC 2767210. PMID 18989332.
  9. Gill V (2014-12-04). "Electric eels 'remotely control prey'". BBC News.
  10. "Electric eels remote-control nervous systems of prey". 2015-02-17.
  11. Faraday M (1839). "Experimental Researches in Electricity, Fifteenth Series". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 129: 1–12. doi:10.1098/rstl.1839.0002.
  12. Gill, Victoria (14 January 2021). "Electric eels work together to zap prey". BBC News. Retrieved 23 May 2021.
  13. Bastos, Douglas A.; Zuanon, Jansen; Rapp Py‐Daniel, Lúcia; Santana, Carlos David (14 January 2021). "Social predation in electric eels". Ecology and Evolution. Wiley. 11 (3): 1088–1092. doi:10.1002/ece3.7121. ISSN 2045-7758. PMC 7863634.
  14. "Scientists discover electric eels hunting in a group: Never-before-seen behavior culminates in a synchronized zap of eels' prey, raising new questions about how they communicate". ScienceDaily. 14 January 2021. Retrieved 23 May 2021.
  15. Roth, Annie (2021-01-14). "Electric Eels Hunt in Packs, Shocking Prey and Scientists". The New York Times (in English). ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-01-16.
  16. Bastos, et al. (2021).
  17. Piper, Ross (2007), Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Greenwood Press.
  18. "Electric Eel". Tennessee Aquarium. Retrieved February 1, 2015.
  19. Phillips C (January 16, 2015). "Snap, crackle, tweet: Tennessee Tech helps aquarium's electric eel make splash on social media". Chattanooga Times Free Press. Retrieved February 1, 2015.

Further reading

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