Dec 092009
 
photo provided courtesy of walknboston on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeAmazon River Basin
Habitatswamps and slow-moving river systems
Nicheambush predator
Favorite Foodsmall fish
LengthUp to 8 feet
WeightUp to 45 pounds
Statuslocally common

They lurk in the murky swamps of major river systems in South America. They are giant, silent killers that grow to lengths of 8 feet. Some are as big around as a man’s thigh. Although they retreat to the safety of reed beds to rest during the day, electric eels are active at night. Their eyes are very weak in the gloom. Instead, the eels have devised another adaptation that makes them truly special.

To make up for its awful eyesight, the electric eel uses specialized organs along the length of its torpedo-shaped body. These are lengths of muscle wound around the eel in coils. As an electric current passes along from tail to head, tiny charges gain more and more energy. Usually, electric eels only use small contractions of these powerful electrical muscles to detect weak electromagnetic signals produced by fish and other prey nearby. It’s when the eel has gotten close enough to its prey that it uses these specialized organs to their full potential.

In the blink of an eye, the tiny spark that started the series of contractions in the muscle ends up as a bolt of electricity. An adult electric eel can deliver more than 500 volts, enough power to stun a horse. In addition to its usefulness in catching fish, this natural electromagnetic weapon is a wonderful defense mechanism. Short of acid blood, there are few defenses better than tazing hard enough to make a horse lose his bowels.

Few still venture into the thick, forbidding swamps of the Amazon River basin, so the electric eel has so far eluded the many hands of man. As long as there is clean, dark water for them to hunt, they will likely continue to survive in a harsh 21st century.

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