In the murky freshwater rivers and streams that snake across the Amazon lurks an eight-foot fascination: the electric eel. Since their discovery more than 250 years ago by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, researchers have thought the electric eel was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, with only one species, Electrophorus electricus.
Now scientists say they have discovered two new species of the electrifying fish, one of which can generate an electric discharge far stronger than E. electricus.
“These fish grow to be seven to eight feet long. They’re really conspicuous,” Smithsonian Institute zoologist David de Santana said in a press release. “If you can discover a new eight-foot-long fish after 250 years of scientific exploration, can you imagine what remains to be discovered in that region?”
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De Santana and colleagues first collected more than 100 electric eels from the rivers and lowland floodplains that ripple vein-like across northern South America. Then the researchers conducted a battery of examinations on the specimens. They scrutinized the fishes’ DNA and made an exhaustive analysis of the eels’ shapes, sizes and electrical capacities.
The team’s extensive analysis tripled the number of known electric eel species. Although the newly identified fish look remarkably similar to E. electricus – gray, wrinkly, flattened giant worms that wiggle through the water – the new species, Electrophorus voltai and Electrophorus varii, are unique. E. voltai, in particular, sets itself apart with a record-high jolt.
This eel spits out electrical discharges at 860 volts, de Santana and team report Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. That makes the animal the strongest living bioelectricity generator known, and far stronger than its cousins. E. electricus produces a comparably paltry 480 volts while E. varii, the other freshly discovered species, can generate up to 572 volts. Not as impressive as E. voltai, but still four times as much as your standard U.S. household outlet.
Beyond their cool factor, electric eels have sparked several medical and technological advances. The animals inspired the design of the first electrical battery and continue to offer a model for battery design today.
But this may only be the tip of the iceberg. De Santana says E. voltai’s exceptional electrical capacity offers a well of unexplored potential. “It could really have different enzymes, different compounds that could be used in medicine or could inspire new technology,” de Santana said.