A research scientist allowed a young electric eel to zap him and reported the experiment and findings in a new study. Kenneth Catania let the eel to shock him with electricity to see what it felt like and to explore the creature’s behavior.

Catania is not the first scientist to feel an eel’s zap – as a 19th-century scientist, Michael Faraday, carried the same experiment to study eels, which gave the same shock as “the electrical machine, the voltaic battery, and the thunderstorm.”

The Electric Eel (Electrophorus electricus) can generate up to 220 volts in fresh water. Image Credit: National Geographic
The Electric Eel (Electrophorus electricus) can generate up to 220 volts in fresh water. Image Credit: National Geographic

Catania had been recently studying eels in his lab and noticed the wiggly animals tried to attack him if he got near them. His findings were published Thursday (Sept 14) in the journal Current Biology.

Scientist lets small electric eel to shock him

The scientist, a Vanderbilt University neurobiologist, was working at his lab when he noticed eels acted strangely whenever he attempted to fish them out with a net that had a metal handle and rim. The animals would jump out of the water and tried to attack the net.

Catania said he’d never seen eels do anything of the sort, including getting out of the water in a “very directed way.” He explained he had set electrodes in the water to listen to their electrical output through a speaker.

“So I knew that when they were attacking the net in this way, they were simultaneously giving off a high voltage discharge,” said Catania, according to NPR. “That clue led me to think, ‘Well, maybe this is sort of a defensive behavior.’”

The scientist knew eels often interpret electrical conductors as living things. He theorized that, perhaps, the net looked like a predator coming down from above, and jumping out of the water somehow upgraded the eel’s ability to zap.

Catania explored the possibility by threatening the animals with a metal plate rigged to an instrument that could register the jolt. He carried out the experiment and saw that as the eel leaped out of the water, the voltage he recorded increased in proportion to height. Meaning, the higher they leaped, the higher the voltage, which suggested why they might have been doing that.

Eels’ zap is ‘much more powerful than a law-enforcement Taser’

The researcher didn’t stop there – he set out to find what kind of electric circuit would be created when the animal touched a living thing, in this case, Catania. He then let a young eel, about a foot long, zap his arm as he held onto a device he designed to weigh the intensity of the electric jolt. He says he had been zapped before working with eels, so he wasn’t too worried about the shock.

A series of photos illustrating the experiment. Image Credit: Science News
A series of photos illustrating the experiment. Image Credit: Science News

“I was not worried about injury, and of course if you work around electric eels a lot, occasionally you’re going to get shocked anyway,” he explained. “So I kind of knew what I was in for. Sort of like an electric-fence sensation a few times.”

He reported the small eel delivered a current that peaked at around 50 milliamps. The Washington Post reports Catania said feeling “impressed” after the zap. And that was a young eel – these animals can grow to 5 feet long or more.

Catania says a fully-grown electric eel could produce an electric shock “much more powerful than a law enforcement Taser,” and would deliver the zap at a pulse rate much higher than the pulse rate given off by a law enforcement Taser.

“It does allow us now to think about and make some pretty reasonable estimates about, ‘Given an eel of size X and water resistance of a known resistance, how much power would one of these eels be able to divert to a human being that was standing in the water?’”

Electric eels are still a mystery for scientists

Electric eels indeed use their leaping ability as a defense mechanism. Last year, Catania confirmed a 200-year-old story telling that eels would jump out of the water to deliver a super-powerful shock whenever they felt threatened. The story, which was believed to be a myth, comes from famous naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who in the 1800s said electric eels had leaped out of the water to attack horses.

A recent viral video that shows a fisherman being knocked backward after an eel leaped onto him increased Catania’s interest. He was interested in finding what drove eels to jump out of the water. However, it is still unclear how and why the animals evolved to jump up to scare off possible predators.

During dry seasons, electric eels sometimes get stuck in shallow pools of water, which has led scientists to assume that predators, like crocodiles, might attempt to attack them. James Albert, a biologist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, tells NPR that while it’s not uncommon for fish to leap out of the water to escape underwater predators, it is unusual that they leap to attack.

He noted that electric eels are still a bit of a mystery for science, and much about their life remains unknown.

“We don’t even know how many species there are,” Albert told NPR. “We don’t know that much about where they live, how they live. It’s a hard fish to study.”

Source: NPR