Shock and awe attack sees eels leap out of water to strike

7 Jun 20164 Shares

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someone

Electric eel, via Wikimedia Commons

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someone

A chance discovery, which confirms 200-year-old claims of eels attacking horses in the Amazon, has proved that electric eels leap out of water to attack predators.

Never corner an animal, always leave them an out. A cat will swipe its claws at you, a dog might bite. An eel, in the stuff of nightmares, will leap out of the water, reach as high up as it can and deliver a powerful electric shock.

The latter was discovered by Vanderbilt University biologist Kenneth Catania, who was transferring eels from one tank to another, using a net with an ill-advised metal rim.

Most eels struggled to swim away from the net but, on occasion, they would stop, turn and leap out to touch the frame of the net.

Sequence shows electric eel attacking a model of an alligator head fitted with LEDs that the eel's electric impulses light up, via Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University

Sequence shows electric eel attacking a model of an alligator head fitted with LEDs that the eel’s electric impulses light up, via Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University

Eels interpret small conductors as prey, now it seems they see large conductors as predators.

The metal rim of the net (“In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best design to use with electric eels,” said Catania) acts as this predator, something which confirms  a legendary account of the famous 19th century explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.

Around 200 years ago, he recounted a dramatic battle between horses and electric eels that he witnessed on a field trip to the Amazon – with no evidence of it since occurring, it edged towards myth, away from truth.

Now, though, he’s been vindicated.

This is a historic illustration of Alexander von Humboldt’s story of the battle between the horses and electric eels, via Public Domain

This is a historic illustration of Alexander von Humboldt’s story of the battle between the horses and electric eels, via Public Domain

“The first time I read von Humboldt’s tale, I thought it was completely bizarre,” said Catania. “Why would the eels attack the horses instead of swimming away?”

Once he noticed the behaviour he tried approaching the eels with non-conducting materials, which they largely ignore – living things typically conduct electricity.

When a partially submerged conducting ‘body’ approached, though, they struck. Interestingly, the higher they leapt out of the water, the stronger the electric shock.

That’s because it shocks directly from its chin onto the target – rather than spread throughout the water when fully submerged.

This is an illustration of how the electrical circuit formed between an electric eel and its target change during a leaping attack, via Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University

This is an illustration of how the electrical circuit formed between an electric eel and its target change during a leaping attack, via Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University

Then the electric current travels through the target until it can exit back into the water where it travels back to the eel’s tail, completing the circuit.

“This allow the eels to deliver shocks with a maximum amount of power to partially-submerged land animals that invade their territory,” Catania said. “It also allows them to electrify a much larger portion of the invader’s body.”

Catania, whose study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, described the eel’s defensive behaviour as “both literally and figuratively shocking”.

66

DAYS

4

HOURS

26

MINUTES

Get your early bird tickets now!

Gordon Hunt is a journalist at Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com