Most public buildings have defibrillators available should someone suffer a heart attack and need an emergency jolt or three of electricity to shock the pump into pumping again. Most people have seen enough medical dramas on television to know the basics of what to do with the paddles and when to yell “Clear!” However, if you find yourself traveling along the Amazon River or are visiting exhibits in an aquarium and face a cardiac arrest with no defibrillator available … fear not. Simply look for one of two new species of electric eels which delivers a world record (for eels) jolt of electricity that is in the high range for defibrillators. And no – unlike leeches, this new electric eel isn’t covered by insurance … yet.
Before we jump-start the story, let’s get the ‘eel police’ off of our case. The so-called electric eel is NOT an eel but a naked-backed knifefish that lives in fresh water and needs to surface every 10 minutes to breath. Originally named the Gymnotus electricus in 1766 by Carl Linnaeus, it became the Electrophorus electricus in 1864 and was considered to be the sole species of electric eels that are found only in South America. That changed this year when zoologist C. David de Santana caught 107 electric eels and ran DNA tests on them. What he found shocked the world of electric eel experts.
“Our analyses readily identify three major lineages that diverged during the Miocene and Pliocene—two of which warrant recognition as new species. For one of the new species, we recorded a discharge of 860 V, well above 650 V previously cited for Electrophorus, making it the strongest living bioelectricity generator.”
De Santana found not one but three distinct species of electricus and determined that their last common ancestor lived million years ago. They managed to separate cleanly until now by livening in different habitats – E. voltai lives in clear southern waters, E. electicus in clear northern waters and E. vari in muddy, oxygen-deprived floodplains. De Santana was the lead author of the study published this week in Nature Communications and deserves most of the credit for bravely wading in these waters to catch the eels. He wears thick rubber gloves but the sweat on his hands can form a connection to the electricity-filled waters around the eels, which gets worse in the dry season when they travel in packs.
“When one starts to discharge, the others do too. You just get used to it. You do what you have to do.”
Really? How does one get used to 860 volts? That’s the record-breaking jolt of E. volti, which beats the 650 volt record of E. electricus and gives it the title of “strongest living bioelectricity generator.” Besides checking their voltage, de Santana can now tell these electric eels apart by other unique characteristics – size, color, flatness of their heads and number of pressure-sensitive pores on their flanks. Needless to say, de Sanata is attached to his new discoveries – at least as attached as he can get without getting shocked. Unfortunately, he’s also getting worried … and rightly so, as he explained in The Atlantic.
“I go to the Amazon twice a year. From what I’ve seen, I’d say that in 50 years’ time, we’ll only have fragments of what we have today.”
He’s referring of course to the damage being done by the Amazon fires which are blazing through the habitats of all three species. Could they pool their electricity and somehow fight back … perhaps by jolting some sense into South American leaders before it’s too late? De Santana sends them a message in his New York Times interview:
“The interest in these fish goes beyond biodiversity. They could inspire new technology. They’re one of the few fish in the world that really carry magic.”
We could all use a little magic these days.