Electrophorus electricus -- the name alone is a clue to the shocking power of this nearly scaleless knifefish commonly called an electric eel. Lurking in the shallow muddy waters of the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, these fish can deliver lethal shocks to unwary humans.
The electric eel has tiny battery-like cells called electrocytes that store power. If threatened or in pursuit of prey, this fish can discharge a current of up to 600 volts, depending on its size. This is far more powerful than the jolt you would get from a standard household outlet if you were foolish enough to play around with electricity. The difference is that a household outlet will deliver a continuous charge while the electric eel’s shock lasts only seconds. The fish can deliver a series of charges in rapid secession, though, rendering its victim helpless and possibly causing heart failure or drowning. In addition to this stunning power, the electric eel also uses lower voltage electric signals as a kind of radar guidance system to navigate the murky waters and find prey. This is very handy since they have extremely poor eyesight.
Electric eels, which are actually knifefish and closer in kin to catfish and carp than to true eels, have a long slender body and a flat head. They are gray-green or brown on top and a yellowish color on bottom, which helps them blend in well with their environment. These fish can grow to lengths of more than 8 feet and can weigh up to 45 pounds. Although they lack a dorsal fin, they have an anal fin that extends nearly the entire length of their underside. This fin has ribbon-like characteristics that aid the fish in maneuvering through its freshwater environment. Electric eels are mouth breathers and must come to the surface of the water to gulp air about every 10 minutes.
There is no danger of these fish accidentally shocking each other during mating because the male fertilizes the eggs only after the female has laid them in the sticky saliva nest previously prepared by papa fish. Once the eggs are laid and fertilized, they are abandoned by their parents. Many are quickly consumed by other aquatic creatures that share their habitat. Juvenile electric eels eat shrimp, crab and even other younger members of their own species. Adult electric eels are not picky eaters; they consume other fish, amphibians, crustaceans, birds and even small mammals.
While human deaths as a result of electric eel encounters are extremely rare, keeping one as a pet is not a good idea. There are plenty of electric eels living in their natural habitat, but they cannot be captured without a scientific permit. Although some have been kept in captivity for up to 22 years, they are very difficult to maintain in an artificial setting. The potential threat they would pose to other animals and humans in the event that they were released outside of their native habitat is too significant to allow them to be marketed as exotic pets. Known to kill animals as large as caiman, the power of these odd-looking creatures is nothing to take lightly.
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Jenny Newberry, a former teacher with 25 years of experience, is a professional writer and photographer and holds a B.S. and a M.Ed. in elementary and special education from the University of South Alabama. She is also a history buff, praise and worship pianist, pet enthusiast, avid crafter and hobby gardener.