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Electric Eels: Habitat & Facts

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years and has a focus on special education and urban education. She received her Master's degree in teaching from Simmon's College and her Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology.

In this lesson, we'll explore the electrifying topic of electric eels. Although they aren't truly eels, they do generate electric currents. In this lesson, we'll explore their habitat and more interesting facts about their voltage and lifestyle.

What Are Electric Eels?

Most of us know to be safe around electrical outlets. Unplugging appliances when we aren't using them, and keeping sockets closed with plastic covers are all important parts of electrical safety at home. There's good reason for these safety precautions. The voltage that comes from your wall in the United States is 120V, definitely enough to cause some damage to a human.

But, one aquatic animal produces a voltage over five times greater than the voltage in your home, the electric eel. A misnomer, the electric eel is not actually an eel, but rather a scaleless fish more closely related to a catfish. It does however, produce a stunning voltage for capturing prey and to use in defense. Today, we're going to learn where these exciting creatures live and some interesting facts about their lives.

Habitat

Unlike true eels, electric eels live only in freshwater habitats, like murky ponds and streams. Found only in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, they live in small pools and streams with stagnant waters. The murkiness of the water doesn't bother them, as they have poor vision anyway. Instead of sight, electric eels use low pulses of electricity to navigate their surroundings. Like sonar, eels release low voltage bursts of electricity to locate prey and find their way around. Once prey is located, the electric eel delivers a fatal shock to kill its prey.

Electric eels like to dwell in stagnant ponds and streams
electric eel

Electric eels dwell on the bottom of these aquatic environments, but they have to come to the surface to breathe, unlike other fish that use gills and must stay submerged.

Although electric eels breaths oxygen like humans, they don't have lungs. Inhaled air provides oxygen to the bloodstream directly through their mouths, which is expelled through other openings on their heads, called opercular openings.

Electric eels must breathe frequently, unlike air-breathing marine mammals that can hold their breaths for hours at a time. Electric eels breach the surface of their murky ponds nearly every two minutes. They do have gills like their fishy relatives, but their gills are only used for expelling carbon dioxide, not getting oxygen from the water.

Physical Appearance

Electric eels are surprisingly large, with some reaching up to eight feet in length; they can also weigh as much as a small child, weighing in at 45 pounds. An electric eel's body is cylindrical with a flattened head, and it lacks the scales that cover most fish, giving it a smooth appearance. A thin, anal fin on the top of its body helps it navigate in the water, fluttering back and forth as the eel traverses its environment.

An electric eel swims with the aid of its anal fin
electric eel swimming

Although they can create quite a burst of electricity, their color is quite dull, a gray blue hue, so they blend in with their aquatic environment.

Voltage

One of the electric eel's most stunning features is its ability to produce large amounts of voltage. The electric shocks are used to fend off predators and capture prey.

Nearly four-fifths of the electric eel's body are devoted to generating electricity. Its essential organs take up the remaining fifth of space. There are three main electrical organs that work together to generate the voltage: the main organ, the Hunters organ, and the Sachs organ. The main organ is located on the dorsal side, with the Hunters organ directly below it on the ventral side, and the Sachs organ at the back. The main organ and the Hunters organ work together to produce the high voltage needed for defense and capturing prey. The Sachs organ produces the low voltage used for navigation.

The electrical organs are made of specialized cells, called electrocytes. While all cells carry a charge, human cells don't have electrocytes and the electric charges in human cells are distributed evenly around the cells, preventing the cells from working together to create any harmful voltage.

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