Discover the Mind-Bending Science Behind How Electric Eels Work

Three Electric Eels
© tristan tan/Shutterstock.com

Written by Nixza Gonzalez

Updated: May 3, 2023

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Electric eels feel like animals out of a movie. These long and thick freshwater fish uniquely stun their prey. Interestingly, these large carnivorous freshwater fish aren’t eels at all. Instead, they are knife fish with eel or snake-like bodies. Currently, there are three electric eel species: E. electricus, E. voltai sp. nov., and E. varii sp. nov..

Electric eels are fascinating. They are one of the few animal species in the world that can generate electricity. But how do they do this? And why? Follow along to learn about the interesting and mind-bending science behind how electric eels work.

How Do Electric Eels Work?

Electric eels generate voltage. They can easily produce up to 600 volts of electricity. But how do they do this? Electric eels have about 6,000 disc-shaped muscle cells, called electrocytes, that produce a small current of electricity. When combined, they can push a large shock. Electric eels use their organs to deliver the shock and control the voltage.

These large freshwater fish have three large organs inside their bodies: the main electric organ, the Hunter’s organ, and the Sachs’ organ. They are all used to produce a charge. However, the main electric organ and part of the Hunter’s organ produce strong charges.

electric eel

Electric eels can produce up to 600 volts of electricity.

©Cattleya2017/Shutterstock.com

How Do Electric Eels Not Shock Themselves?

Although electric eels always generate electricity, they don’t shock or hurt themselves. The reason as to how they don’t though, is still a mystery. But it’s not a surprise that water and electricity don’t mix. There are some theories though that scientists frequently debate. One theory suggests that they do shock themselves, but the duration isn’t long enough for them to react.

While we don’t know how electric eels don’t shock themselves, scientists have observed these animals moving in ways to reduce the risk of shocking themselves. Electric eels, for example, will move and stiffen their bodies into shapes where the charge won’t pass through their hearts.

Do Electric Eel Shocks Hurt?

Electric eels are tough. They can produce large, and strong shocks which can take down animals like the caiman. However, electric eels produce a shock that only lasts about two thousandths of a second. While electric eel zaps hurt, they are rarely deadly.

Instead, they mainly zap their prey to stun them, making it easier to feed. Some of their most common predators include different fish species, birds, reptiles, and small mammals. Electric eels stun their prey, paralyzing them quickly, before swallowing them whole.

Some people who’ve been zapped by electric eels describe the pain and uncomfortable, but not as painful as touching a live wire. Instead, the pain is brief but causes a burn. It’s not just painful, but shocking.

electric eel incredible facts

Electric eels zap their prey to temporarily stun them. When their prey is paralyzed, electric eels swallow them whole.

©Danny Ye/Shutterstock.com

Why Do Electric Eels Zap?

Although electric eels mainly zap and send out electricity into the water when hunting for their prey, they also send low shocks to communicate and look for mates. Electric eels produce low pulses with their low electric organs. Scientists are still observing and studying the low pulses, but one theory suggests it’s how they communicate. The short and low pulses vary in duration and frequency. Electric eels also use their electricity to navigate dark and musky waters.

Electric Eel Close-Up

Electric eels zap and use their electricity for many reasons. They use low shocks to navigate in murky waters and find prey, and mates.

©iStock.com/stacey_newman

Do Electric Eels Attack Humans?

Humans aren’t usually on an electric eel’s menu. We are too big and uncomfortable to swallow. Still, electric eel attacks on humans have been recorded, including deaths. While this is true, attacks, especially fatal attacks, are very rare! Usually, if an electric eel attacks a human, it’s out of fear. It also takes more than just one shock. Most of the time, the shock can cause confusion and panic, which leads to drowning. It’s more dangerous if an electric eel back-to-back zaps a human multiple times in the water. The shock is a lot less intense compared to a lightning strike, but it can cause cardiac arrest in those with pre-existing heart conditions.

Although electric eel attacks have happened, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see one in the water. Electric eels are native to the middle and lower Amazon and Orinoco river basins in South America. They are very common in murky water where they can hide. Surprisingly, these thick fish can grow up to 8 feet long.


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About the Author

Nixza Gonzalez is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics like travel, geography, plants, and marine animals. She has over six years of experience as a content writer and holds an Associate of Arts Degree. A resident of Florida, Nixza loves spending time outdoors exploring state parks and tending to her container garden.

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