It’s the season for bright lights and twinkling displays. At the Vancouver Marine Science Centre, we’ve turned to one of our most interesting creatures to help power up the show. The eel-ectric lights on our Christmas tree in the Cannacord Exploration Gallery show off the prowess of our electric eel. With its battery-like body, housing three electricity-producing organs that help it locate, zap and stun prey in the murky Amazon waters, the eel attracts attention for its most obvious attribute. But there are a few other facts about this fascinating fish that often remain under the surface.

1. Electric Eels aren’t eels at all

Looks like an eel, swims like an eel, but...not actually an eel. Go figure.

Looks like an eel, swims like an eel, but…not actually an eel. Go figure.

It’s true! The electric eel is actually a misnomer. Although it certainly resembles an eel —long, slender and missing some fins, this creature is actually a kind of knife fish. How can you tell the difference? Well, true eels are characterized by a dorsal fin and an anal fin that connects at the tail. In contrast, the electric eel (electric knife fish doesn’t quite have the same ring to it), lacks a dorsal fin. To see more knife fish, visit our Amazon Gallery.

2. They breathe air

Not all fish draw their oxygen out of the water through gills. In fact, in the murky, muddy waters of the Amazon the dissolved oxygen content is rather low. To get around that problem electric eels rise to the surface to sip air through their mouths; they obtain 80 percent of their oxygen this way. Making the trek up to the surface to breathe isn’t a huge hassle for these fish, however, as they live in relatively shallow waters.

3. If they shock you, they meant to[youtube][/youtube]

You may have noticed the lights in our Christmas display flicker on and off. That’s because electric eels decide when they want to emit electricity. Opening up the pathways that cause an electrical discharge to happen is a matter of choice. They also have a choice about the kind of charge they want to emit. Electric eels have three organs in their body that help them produce different kinds of pulses used for three different purposes:

  • Electrolocation, or sensing objects and animals, kind of like a proximity detection system
  • Revealing prey through remote-control style pulses that cause anything with muscles to twitch. This lets the eel know exactly where its prey is. There’s no hiding from this guy.
  • Freezing or stunning. This pulse causes the muscles of prey to lock up so they can’t move. The effect is exactly like a Taser.

4. Caring for an electric eel takes some special gear

Given its predilection for creating electrifying moments, our care team uses some special gear when cleaning the eel habitat. Here, Mike prepares to enter the water.

Given its predilection for creating electrifying moments, our care team uses some special gear when cleaning the eel habitat. Here, Mike prepares to enter the water in rubber chestwaders and using a fibre glass ladder..

In general, electric eels can emit up to 600 volts in one pulse, although they can double that voltage – up to 1200 volts – by curling their bodies around an edible organism. Now that’s a forceful shock! But what really poses a threat to larger organisms, including people, aren’t volts but amperes – that’s the amount of energy in a pulse while volts measure the force of that electricity. Large eels are capable of producing charges of up to 1 ampere—that’s enough to seriously injure or harm a person. So our care team uses

Just your basic electric eel cleaning kit.

Just your basic electric eel habitat cleaning kit.

some special gear to ensure they are safe when cleaning the eel’s habitat. Only our tropical fresh water biologists Athena and Mike are allowed to access the eel exhibit and when they do so they wear rubber chestwaders, use a fibreglass ladder and a scissor lift to safely enter the water. A rubber-handled net is crucial when they need to move the eel. Fortunately, our eel seems to be fairly chill and is usually calm and curious during this weekly cleaning ritual.

5. The eel’s electricity has a life of its own

In many parts of the world, eels are considered good eating. But aside from not being a true eel, this electric knife fish has escaped a reputation as a tasty treat. Why? Aside from the obvious challenge in catching one without getting a good jolt, it continues to produce electricity up to eight hours after its death. Now that would certainly make for a surprising mouthful.

Visit our eel-electric lights display from now until Jan. 3.

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2 Responses

  1. T.J

    These little glimpses you show of the aquarium in pictures make me realize that it’s probably not the place I remember at all. I seem to remember an electric eel in a smallish tank in a room filled with other not so large exhibits and a light in the ceiling that I’m sure the eel lit up……. but then I also remember killer whales. It’s not so easy to come see the place when you live in Alberta so I havn’t been there in at least 20 years maybe more like 25. As a kid I was fascinated by the ocean and marine life and we would always stop in at the aquarium when we were in the lower mainland on summer vacation. Thanks for giving me so many good memories, I will have to make it a point to stop in the next time I’m out on the coast.

    • Vancouver Aquarium

      Yes, we have changed over the years! We no longer have orca whales but there are many other amazing creatures that call Vancouver Aquarium home. We hope to see you on your next trip out to B.C.


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