Dive Pacific 171 Oct- Nov 2019


Provided by ABC



Newly discovered electric eel has the most

powerful shock

After years thinking there was

only the one species in the

genus Electrophorus, researchers

now characterise the electric eel,

Electrophorus electricus, as three

species. And a recent addition,

Electrophorus voltaic, has been

recorded generating 860 volts,

far above the previous record of

650 volts, reports ABC Science in


E.voltai is now thought to be

the most powerful electricity

generating animal in the world, say

the authors of a report in Nature

Communications. Their research

aims to identify and describe the

electric fishes of the Amazon

rainforest, said zoologist and lead

author of the paper Dr David de

Santana of the Smithsonian’s

National Museum of Natural


Though their discharge is high

voltage its low amperage and

wouldn’t necessarily be dangerous

to humans.

The electric eel is not actually an

eel at all but a type of knifefish

that grow up to 2.5 metres in

length. It was first described by

Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in



Electric fishes are said to be

electrogenic (produces electricity)

as opposed to others described as

electroreceptic, or able to detect

electric fields, with some species

both. Other electric fish include

electric rays and electric catfish.

Electrophorus voltai has the most powerful electric discharge

of any known animal. (Supplied: L. Sousa)

Dr de Santana and his colleagues

collected 107 electric eel specimens

over six years from across the

Amazon basin. Though they look

very similar, differences in their

DNA showed they were made up of

three different species with each of

the species living in different parts

of the Amazon basin.

“The discovery

of hidden

species diversity

and of such an


and long-known

organism as

electric eels

indicates that

an enormous

amount of

species are still

waiting to be

discovered in

the Amazon


Dr de Santana

said. “Many

may harbour cures for diseases or

inspire technological


reinforcing the critical

need to protect

Earth’s hotspots of


Electric fish use three

electric organs to

generate electricity

made of modified

muscle cells called

electrocytes which

can produce strong

electrical discharges

as well as weaker ones,

and they typically

use them arranged like

batteries in series fired

by entire-body muscle contractions

caused by the direct stimulation of

spinal motor neurons.

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and

Romans all used electric fish for

their medicine to numb people

or treat conditions like gout and


Dr de Santana said electric eels

inspired the design of Italian

physicist Alessandro Volta’s first

electric battery, and an enzyme

extracted from their electric

organs has been used as a target

for drugs to treat Alzheimer’s


More recently electrical eels have

promoted the advance of hydrogel

batteries (made of a substance

similar to gelatin) that might be

used to power medical implants.

An electric ray residing in Sydney

Harbour called the coffin ray

(Hypnos monopterygius) can grow

to 40 cm. Biomedical engineer

Professor Alistair McEwan of the

University of Sydney said they use

electrical sensing like a shark to

see around them, not just passively

by listening into the electricity,

but also by sending out their own

electric field to map the world

around them”.

Researchers have looked at how

to emulate this system to monitor

internal cardiac surgery, and in

the brain. Professor McEwan and

his colleagues are also looking

at how they might be able to use

Sydney Harbour’s coffin ray

(Hypnos monopterygius)

the electroreception abilities

of Australia’s platypus and the


“We thought the electroreception

would only work well with water.

It’s amazing the platypus works

well in fresh water without

conductive salt, but even more

amazing that the echidna can

electrically sense in the dry

desert,” he said.

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