OPEN Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America | 9 Jun 2016
In March 1800, Alexander von Humboldt observed the extraordinary spectacle of native fisherman collecting electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) by “fishing with horses” [von Humboldt A (1807) Ann Phys 25:34-43]. The strategy was to herd horses into a pool containing electric eels, provoking the eels to attack by pressing themselves against the horses while discharging. Once the eels were exhausted, they could be safely collected. This legendary tale of South American adventures helped propel Humboldt to fame and has been recounted and illustrated in many publications, but subsequent investigators have been skeptical, and no similar eel behavior has been reported in more than 200 years. Here I report a defensive eel behavior that supports Humboldt’s account. The behavior consists of an approach and leap out of the water during which the eel presses its chin against a threatening conductor while discharging high-voltage volleys. The effect is to short-circuit the electric organ through the threat, with increasing power diverted to the threat as the eel attains greater height during the leap. Measurement of voltages and current during the behavior, and assessment of the equivalent circuit, reveal the effectiveness of the behavior and the basis for its natural selection.
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