The Shocking Story of the Electric Eel

Biologist Subjects Himself To An Electric Eel Attack For Science

The electric eel is an air-breathing fish native to the Orinoco and part of the Amazon River basins in the northern part of South America. The scientific name, Electrophorus electricus, refers to the eel’s capacity to produce electricity. 

This eel is a sizable fish: the eel can grow to more than six feet and weigh more than 40 pounds. It has a long lifespan for a fish, 15 to 20 years. 

The electric eel has some 6,000 specialized cell structures called electrocytes that store energy in a way somewhat similar to batteries. The structures take up a lot of the eel’s internal body space. These specialized cells can discharge almost simultaneously, in two milliseconds. But the eel doesn’t just blast away with all those volts. When it starts a hunt, it will send a couple of electric pulses. The pulses make nearby prey have involuntary muscle twitches, giving their location away to the hungry eel.

The charge lasts only a very short time, but it has been measured at 600 volts. Its primary use is to stun prey, but also can be used defensively. There is some evidence that the eels use electrical pulses to communicate with each other, which sounds like a kind of fishy Morse code. Electric eels remain common and do not face any significant threats.

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