Two new species of electric ell have been described from South America, and one of them packs even more punch than the original, writes Steve Baker.
I’ve heard some horrendous accounts of what can go wrong when keeping electric eels, Electrophorus electricus, in aquaria. One that sticks in my mind is of a staff member in an aquatics shop being thrown across the room in to, and through an opposing rack of stock tanks. They survived as it was a smallish specimen but that has to hurt, and the glass…
Legitimate story or made-up myth, I’m uncertain. But it’s believable from an animal that produces bursts of electricity up to 600 volts!
However, as the years roll by things keep getting bigger and stronger, just look at ‘Mini’ cars… and the new Electrophorus voltai and Electrophorus virii!
That’s right, two new species of electric eel have been discovered in the Amazon rainforest! What’s more, one of them is larger and more potent than the one we already know. With the ability to shock with up to a colossal 860 volts, this 250cm fish grabs the medal for the strongest living electrical source on the planet… that we know of.
A team from the São Paulo Research Foundation identified sufficient divergence in DNA, morphology, habitat and electrical output — a first in taxonomy — to name not just one new species of Electrophorus but two. Taking the genus from one long-standing, lonely member to a party of three.
E. electrophorus was originally described by Carl Linnaeus in 1766 as Gymnotus electricus, placing it in the same genus as the Banded knifefish, G. carapo, which he had also described in 1758. In 1864 Theodore Gill moved the electric eel in to the new, monospecific genus of Electrophorus.
Species diversification from a common ancestor is thought to have started around 7.1 million years ago, when E. varii evolved. E. electricus and E. voltai are younger species, thought to have diversified around 3.6 million years ago, divided when the reversal of the Paleo west-flowing Amazon saw the contemporary east flow separate the Brazil and the Guiana shields.
Though E. voltai produces more than three times the volts you’ll get from an average home plug socket, the amperage is far lower. With approximately 1 amp produced by the eel, compared to 10-20 amps from a socket they’re unlikely to do real harm to a healthy human.
The species name voltai has been assigned to pay respect to Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, inventor of the electric battery (1799). His work and inspiration lead to the development of electrochemistry as a field of study.