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Concept: Eel


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.

Concepts: Electricity, Fish, Eel, Electric eel, Electric fish, Alexander von Humboldt, Lisa Germano, Mark Oliver Everett


Alternative hypotheses had been advanced as to the components forming the elongate fin coursing along the ventral margin of much of the body and tail from behind the abdominal region to the posterior margin of the tail in the Electric Eel, Electrophorus electricus. Although the original species description indicated that this fin was a composite of the caudal fin plus the elongate anal fin characteristic of other genera of the Gymnotiformes, subsequent researchers proposed that the posterior region of the fin was formed by the extension of the anal fin posteriorly to the tip of the tail, thereby forming a “false caudal fin.” Examination of ontogenetic series of the genus reveal that Electrophorus possesses a true caudal fin formed of a terminal centrum, hypural plate and a low number of caudal-fin rays. The confluence of the two fins is proposed as an additional autapomorphy for the genus. Under all alternative proposed hypotheses of relationships within the order Gymnotiformes, the presence of a caudal fin in Electrophorus optimized as being independent of the occurence of the morphologically equivalent structure in the Apteronotidae. Possible functional advantages to the presence of a caudal fin in the genus are discussed.

Concepts: Electricity, Species, Fish, Eel, Actinopterygii, Electric eel, Electric fish, Gymnotiformes


Phenolic lipids were isolated from rye grains, cashew nutshell liquid (CNSL) from Anacardium occidentale, and fruit bodies of Merrulius tremellosus, and their effects on the electric eel acetylcholinesterase activity and conformation were studied. The observed effect distinctly depended on the chemical structure of the phenolic lipids that were available for interaction with the enzyme. All of the tested compounds reduced the activity of acetylcholinesterase. The degree of inhibition varied, showing a correlation with changes in the conformation of the enzyme tested by the intrinsic fluorescence of the Trp residues of the protein.

Concepts: Electricity, Enzyme, Effect, Nitrogen, Chemical compound, Eel, Cashew, Electric eel


Electric eels have been the subject of investigation and curiosity for centuries [1]. They use high voltage to track [2] and control [3] prey, as well as to exhaust prey by causing involuntary fatigue through remote activation of prey muscles [4]. But their most astonishing behavior is the leaping attack, during which eels emerge from the water to directly electrify a threat [5, 6]. This unique defense has reportedly been used against both horses [7] and humans [8]. Yet the dynamics of the circuit that develops when a living animal is contacted and the electrical power transmitted to the target have not been directly investigated. In this study, the electromotive force and circuit resistances that develop during an eel’s leaping behavior were determined. Next, the current that passed through a human subject during the attack was measured. The results allowed each variable in the equivalent circuit to be estimated. Findings can be extrapolated to a range of different eel sizes that might be encountered in the wild. Despite the comparatively small size of the eel used in this study, electrical currents in the target peaked at 40-50 mA, greatly exceeding thresholds for nociceptor activation reported for both humans [9] and horses [10, 11]. No subjective sensation of involuntary tetanus was reported, and aversive sensations were restricted to the affected limb. Results suggest that the main purpose of the leaping attack is to strongly deter potential eel predators by briefly causing intense pain. Apparently a strong offense is the eel’s best defense.

Concepts: Psychology, Electromagnetism, Magnetic field, Electricity, Electric current, Eel, Volt, Electric eel


Migration allows animals to track the environmental conditions that maximize growth, survival, and reproduction [1-3]. Improved understanding of the mechanisms underlying migrations allows for improved management of species and ecosystems [1-4]. For centuries, the catadromous European eel (Anguilla anguilla) has provided one of Europe’s most important fisheries and has sparked considerable scientific inquiry, most recently owing to the dramatic collapse of juvenile recruitment [5]. Larval eels are transported by ocean currents associated with the Gulf Stream System from Sargasso Sea breeding grounds to coastal and freshwater habitats from North Africa to Scandinavia [6, 7]. After a decade or more, maturing adults migrate back to the Sargasso Sea, spawn, and die [8]. However, the migratory mechanisms that bring juvenile eels to Europe and return adults to the Sargasso Sea remain equivocal [9, 10]. Here, we used a “magnetic displacement” experiment [11, 12] to show that the orientation of juvenile eels varies in response to subtle differences in magnetic field intensity and inclination angle along their marine migration route. Simulations using an ocean circulation model revealed that even weakly swimming in the experimentally observed directions at the locations corresponding to the magnetic displacements would increase entrainment of juvenile eels into the Gulf Stream System. These findings provide new insight into the migration ecology and recruitment dynamics of eels and suggest that an adaptive magnetic map, tuned to large-scale features of ocean circulation, facilitates the vast oceanic migrations of the Anguilla genus [7, 13, 14].

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Eel, Gulf Stream, Ocean current, European eel, Sargasso Sea, Sverdrup


Electric eels can incapacitate prey with an electric discharge, but the mechanism of the eel’s attack is unknown. Through a series of experiments, I show that eel high-voltage discharges can activate prey motor neurons, and hence muscles, allowing eels to remotely control their target. Eels prevent escape in free-swimming prey using high-frequency volleys to induce immobilizing whole-body muscle contraction (tetanus). Further, when prey are hidden, eels can emit periodic volleys of two or three discharges that cause massive involuntary twitch, revealing the prey’s location and eliciting the full, tetanus-inducing volley. The temporal patterns of eel electrical discharges resemble motor neuron activity that induces fast muscle contraction, suggesting that eel high-voltage volleys have been selected to most efficiently induce involuntary muscle contraction in nearby animals.

Concepts: Spinal cord, Electricity, Muscle, Muscle contraction, Eel, Motor neuron, Alpha motor neuron, Electric eel


The age, total length (LT ), head shape and skull shape were investigated for 379 Japanese eels Anguilla japonica sampled in freshwater and brackish areas of the Kojima Bay-Asahi River system, Okayama, Japan, to learn about the differentiation process of head-shape polymorphism. The relative mouth width (ratio of mouth width to LT ) of A. japonica > 400 mm LT collected in fresh water was significantly greater than that of fish collected in brackish water. Growth rates of mouth width and the distance from the snout to the midpoint of the eyes (the ratio of width and distance to age, respectively) were not significantly different between freshwater and brackish-water samples, whereas the somatic growth rate (the ratio of LT to age) of freshwater samples was significantly lower than that of brackish-water eel samples. These results suggest that the factors affecting head and somatic growth of A. japonica are not identical. According to these results and feeding patterns in each habitat reported by another study, it is suggested that somatic growth appears to play a significant role in the differentiation process of the head-shape polymorphism in A. japonica, with the slow-growing fish in fresh water becoming broad-headed and the fast-growing fish in brackish water becoming narrow-headed.

Concepts: Ratio, River, Estuary, Amazon River, Eel, Japanese eel, Length, Aquatic ecology


This study attempts to clarify the controversy regarding the ontogenetic origin of the main organ electrocytes in the electric eel, Electrophorus electricus. The dispute was between an earlier claimed origin from a skeletal muscle precursor [Fritsch, 1881], or from a distinct electrocyte-generating matrix, or germinative zone [Keynes, 1961]. We demonstrate electrocyte formation from a metamerically organized group of pre-electroblasts, splitting off the ventralmost tip of the embryonic trunk mesoderm at the moment of hatching from the egg. We show details of successive stages in the development of rows of electric plates, the electrocytes, by means of conventional histology and electron microscopy. The membrane-bound pre-electroblasts multiply rapidly and then undergo a specific mitosis where they lose their membranes and begin extensive cytoplasm production as electroblasts. Electrical activity, consisting of single and multiple pulses, was noticed in seven-day-old larvae that began to exhibit swimming movements. A separation of discharges into single pulses and trains of higher voltage pulses was seen first in 45-mm-long larvae. A lateralis imus muscle and anal fin ray muscles, implicated by earlier investigators in the formation of electrocytes, begin developing at a time in larval life when eight columns of electrocytes are already present. Axonal innervation is seen very early during electrocyte formation. © 2014 S. Karger AG, Basel.

Concepts: Electricity, Developmental biology, Fish, Nerve, Eel, Electric eel, Electric fish, Electric organ


Electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) are legendary for their ability to incapacitate fish, humans, and horses with hundreds of volts of electricity. The function of this output as a weapon has been obvious for centuries but its potential role for electroreception has been overlooked. Here it is shown that electric eels use high-voltage simultaneously as a weapon and for precise and rapid electrolocation of fast-moving prey and conductors. Their speed, accuracy, and high-frequency pulse rate are reminiscent of bats using a ‘terminal feeding buzz’ to track insects. Eel’s exhibit ‘sensory conflict’ when mechanosensory and electrosensory cues are separated, striking first toward mechanosensory cues and later toward conductors. Strikes initiated in the absence of conductors are aborted. In addition to providing new insights into the evolution of strongly electric fish and showing electric eels to be far more sophisticated than previously described, these findings reveal a trait with markedly dichotomous functions.

Concepts: Electricity, Fish, Eel, Actinopterygii, Electric eel, Electric fish, Gymnotiformes, Electrophoridae


When approached by a large, partially submerged conductor, electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) will often defend themselves by leaping from the water to directly shock the threat. Presumably, the conductor is interpreted as an approaching terrestrial or semiaquatic animal. In the course of this defensive behavior, eels first make direct contact with their lower jaw and then rapidly emerge from the water, ascending the conductor while discharging high-voltage volleys. In this study, the equivalent circuit that develops during this behavior was proposed and investigated. First, the electromotive force and internal resistance of four electric eels were determined. These values were then used to estimate the resistance of the water volume between the eel and the conductor by making direct measurements of current with the eel and water in the circuit. The resistance of the return path from the eel’s lower jaw to the main body of water was then determined, based on voltage recordings, for each electric eel at the height of the defensive leap. Finally, the addition of a hypothetical target for the leaping defense was considered as part of the circuit. The results suggest the defensive behavior efficiently directs electrical current through the threat, producing an aversive and deterring experience by activating afferents in potential predators.

Concepts: Electromagnetism, Electric charge, Magnetic field, Electricity, Fish, Electric current, Eel, Electric eel