A Vanderbilt biologist reached into electric eel tank in order to come up with an equation to measure shocks.
What does the shock of an electric eel feel like? Vanderbilt University researcher Ken Catania knows intimately, because he stuck his arm into a tank with a small eel – 10 times.
It was the only way, Catania said, to get accurate measurements of the circuit created by animal, arm and water. Measuring the shock from those interactions allowed him to solve an equation he can extrapolate to measure the power released by big eels – whose shock, it’s said, feel like getting tasered nine times at once.
Catania worked with a 16-inch-long juvenile eel he affectionately named Finless. Catania said in a statement:
Eels are essentially batteries immersed in water, and I wanted to solve the question of how powerful those batteries are. What’s the internal resistance of the battery? What’s the resistance of the water? My past research left out the last variable: my arm.
To close the circuit and get the measurement, he created a device that used copper wire to conduct the electricity from the shock to his arm back to the water, one of the methods documented in his paper, published September 14, 2017 in the journal Current Biology.
Electric eels making leaping attacks: Kenneth Catania has discovered that electric eels make leaping attacks that dramatically increase the strength of the electric shocks they deliver.
Catania studies the neurobiology of predators and prey. Last year, he confirmed a controversial 200-year-old account of eels leaping out of Amazonian waters to shock horses. Documenting the eels’ leaping ability left him wondering about the resistances and current for each component of an attack. Catania said:
[Eels] are so much more sophisticated than we possibly could have imagined. This animal can generate hundreds of volts, but they’ve also evolved to very efficiently deliver that electricity.
Bottom line: A Vanderbilt biologist stuck his arm into an electric eel tank 10 times to measure the shock. Video.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.