Saturday, February 19, 2011
February 19, 2011 : Electric Eel
The Electric eel (Electrophorus electricus), is an electric fish, and the only species of the genus Electrophorus. It is capable of generating powerful electric shocks, which it uses for both hunting and self-defense. It is an apex predator in its South American range. Despite its name it is not an eel but rather a knifefish.
The electric eel has three abdominal pairs of organs that produce electricity: the Main organ, the Hunter's organ, and the Sachs organ. These organs make up four-fifths of its body, and are what give the electric eel the ability to generate two types of electric organ discharges (EODs), low voltage and high voltage. These organs are made of electrocytes, lined up so that the current flows through them and produces an electrical charge. When the eel locates its prey, the brain sends a signal through the nervous system to the electric cells. This opens the ion channel, allowing positively-charged sodium to flow through, reversing the charges momentarily. By causing a sudden difference in voltage, it generates a current.
The electric eel generates its characteristic electrical pulse in a manner similar to a battery, in which stacked plates produce an electrical charge. In the electric eel, some 5,000 to 6,000 stacked electroplaques are capable of producing a shock at up to 500 volts and 1 ampere of current (500 watts). Such a shock could be deadly for an adult human. (Electrocution death is due to current flow; the level of current that is fatal in humans is roughly 0.75A.)
The Sachs organ is associated with electrolocation. Inside the organ are many muscle-like cells, called electrocytes. Each cell can only produce 0.15 V, though working together the organ transmits a signal of about 10 V in amplitude at around 25 Hz. These signals are what is emitted by the main organ and Hunter's organ that can be emitted at rates of several hundred Hz.
The electric eel is unique among the gymnotiforms in having large electric organs capable of producing lethal discharges that allows them to stun prey. There are reports of this fish producing larger voltages, but the typical output is sufficient to stun or deter virtually any other animal. Juveniles produce smaller voltages (about 100 volts). Electric eels are capable of varying the intensity of the electrical discharge, using lower discharges for "hunting" and higher intensities for stunning prey, or defending themselves. When agitated, it is capable of producing these intermittent electrical shocks over a period of at least an hour without signs of tiring.