What is an Electric Eel?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) is a type of fish native to South America. Many people are familiar with the electric eel, thanks to its unique ability to produce large amounts of electricity, primarily used in hunting. Despite their shocking reputations, electric eels are actually quite gentle fish, and some biologists have even described them as friendly. Unfortunately, the fish can discharge electricity very easily, so they need to be handled with rubber gloves and extreme care.

The electrophorus electricus is native to South America.
The electrophorus electricus is native to South America.

Technically, the electric eel is a knifefish, not an eel. Electric eels lack several major characteristics which are associated with eels, leading to their classification in different orders. Like other knifefish, the electric eel has specialized internal organs which can generate electricity. The fish is also entirely freshwater dwelling, and is considered to be one of the leading predators of South American rivers.

The common name for the fish comes from the superficial resemblance it has to eels. The body of an electric eel is long and dark, much like that of a true eel. The fish can grow up to nine feet (almost three meters) long, and are capable of generating up to 700 volts of electricity. The shock of the electrical discharge is used to stun prey. The fish also have a superb sense of hearing, which they may use to help them locate prey.

The diet of the electric eel consists primarily of other fish, although they have also been known to eat amphibians and small mammals which have strayed into their territory. Young electric eels eat bottom dwelling insects and small fish until they are old enough to hunt larger prey. The electric eel is also unusual among fish species in that it gets most of its oxygen through direct breathing. The fish surface every 10 minutes or so to take large gulps of air, which supply as much as 80% of their oxygen.

Because electric eels are capable of generating formidable electrical charges, they are considered dangerous. Home fish enthusiasts should not keep electric eels, because the risk is too great. Scientists use the fish in some research, handling them with respect and caution. Some aquariums also keep electric eels, and their handlers are carefully trained to avoid accidents. In some regions, the fish are banned, because of concerns about their escape into the wild. In a fragile environment, the electric eel could quickly become a dominant species, putting native fish at risk.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Pelestears- You bring up an interesting point when you say "compared to other electric animals" most people do not realize that all animals produce some electric current, and many aquatic animals actually produce enough electricity to stun prey and enemies. This article presented some great electric eel facts, but I wanted to add a little info about some closely related aquatic electric animals.

Electric rays roam almost all the oceans of earth. There are some 60 plus species of electric ray and lesser electric ray that inhabit the first 1000 feet of the ocean's depths. They can produce up to a third of the voltage of an electric eel, but they can produce up to thirty times the current. This can make them dangerous to divers and swimmers.

Some of these electric rays are very dangerous and aggressive. For example, the pacific electric ray will actually charge a diver when they feel threatened. One of these six-foot behemoths can send a couple thousand watts through a person at 220 volts when angered. Luckily, the pacific ray frequents the colder waters where there are few divers and swimmers. There have been only a few deaths where these rays could have been involved.


@georgesplane- From what I understand, a freshwater electric eel has an effective range of about one body's length. Freshwater is a poor conductor of electricity compared to salt water. You could be in danger of a significant shock if you swim within six to nine feet of the eel. From what I understand though, the eels are fairly docile and will only produce a current for hunting or in defense. For this reason, electric eels often stun horses that step to close.

The reason that these eels do not kill themselves is because they have less electrical resistance than the fish and the water around them. They are covered in special cells that allow the electricity to flow easily through them without causing harm.

That being said, you could probably kill an electric eel if you had a strong enough current. The current produced by electric eels is low compared to other electric animals, but the voltage, or pressure pushing that current, is high. This enables the electricity to travel through the fresh water, which is not the best conductor of electricity. If you were pushing more than one amp through the water (the amount of current an electric eel produces), you could probably kill an electric eel.


How close do you have to be to an electric eel to feel its shock? In other words, what is the eel’s effective range? It is so amazing that these animals can produce electricity, and I find it even more amazing that the effects of the electricity they generate do not harm them. I wonder if it would be possible to actually kill an electric eel through electric shock. This was a cool article. I would like some more electric eel info if anyone has any.

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