Researchers have started to unravel the mysteries of how eels hunt, shock, and kill their prey. The findings come at the end of a nine-month study of the way in which the electric eel uses high-voltage electrical discharges to locate and incapacitate its prey.
Vanderbilt University biologist Ken Catania, who led the research, says eels may just be one of the most fascinating killers on the planet. The predator has the ability to discharge as much as 600 volts of electricity in a single jolt.
Until recently it was thought that eels simply shock their prey to death before eating them. Catania had a hunch the process was more complex. He used a high speed camera to slow down time and stretch out the milliseconds it takes an eel to hunt and kill.
“As soon as I filmed them with a high speed camera I saw some amazing things and I was kind of hooked on to a research path to try and understand what was going on,” he said.
What Catania witnessed was a complex series of electrifying events that unravel faster than a blink of an eye and that almost always ends with an eel catching and eating its desired prey. It starts with an eels’ unique anatomy which Catania says has been fine tuned by millions of years of evolution in the murky water of the Amazon River.
“The front one fifth, maybe, of the animal is all of the normal internal organs and the back end is mostly muscles that have been converted into energy generating batteries that are lined up in a series like a big flashlight,” Catania added that ‘flashlight’ is powerful, with large eels giving off enough voltage to kill a horse.
Catania found that eels use a pair low intensity pulses to make their victims involuntarily twitch revealing the targets exact location. Then the eel unleashes its high powered electric salvo which leaves its prey literally frozen in a state of shock. To accomplish this Catania found that eels basically take over their victims nervous systems.
“So it really is a remote control in a sense of the eels’ neurons activating through the electric generating organs the neurons in the prey. And so they are remotely activating their preys’ muscles and essentially taking over their peripheral nervous system,” he said.
Catania says there is still a lot to learn from eels, like how their bodies are shielded from the intense electricity they produce. But for now, he says, figuring out the shocking truth of how eels kill has been an electrifying experience.