Electric Eel

Electric Eel

Electrophorus electricus

About This Animal

SIZE: 6-8 feet

RANGE: Amazon and Orinoco River basins

HABITAT: Freshwater streams and ponds

DIET: Fish, amphibians, birds and small mammals

ON EXHIBIT: Rivers of the World gallery

The electric eel is capable of generating over 800 volts of electricity!  It uses that large electrical discharge for defense and to stun prey.  Most of the time they only generate about 10 volts for navigation and to locate prey because they have poor eyesight and live in murky waters. Electric eels have three different electrical organs that are made up of thousands of electrical generating cells called electrocytes.

Electric eels are air breathers and must be able to return to the surface to breathe or they can drown.  Another interesting thing about them is that they really are not even eels.  They are actually a type of knifefish and are more closely related to carp than to eels.

An adult eel, more than four feet in length, was documented discharging more than 850 volts! Even though that’s a lot of voltage, it’s only delivered at about one amp. That’s still enough of a shock to easily stun prey or predator. And, they have the ability to discharge rapidly – “ZAP! ZAP! ZAP!” Our aquarists wear thick rubber gloves when working with this animal as a precautionary measure. 

The new exhibit features interactive interpretation. Probes in the water detect the Electric Eel’s discharge. The leads are connected to an amplifier and LED meter to give our guests a better understanding of how the eel varies these bursts of electricity. When at rest, the eel discharges very little. But the electrical activity increases with movement and feeding. So, even though the eel is not powering the speaker or the lights, this display directly correlates to the electricity discharged by this animal.

Check out our Electric Eels twitter page at https://twitter.com/EelectricMiguel.  He tweets about whatever sparks his interest! (Learn more about how a team of experts set up a way for the eel to automatically posts messages whenever probes in his tank detect a strong-enough electrical discharge from him.)

See video of the Tennessee Aquarium’s Electric Eel being fed. (You’ll hear the level of discharges increase dramatically as the food is being released from the surface.)