It sounds like something no person in their right mind would do, but a biological science professor allowed himself to get shocked by an electric eel. And it was all for the sake of scientific research.
According to a report from Popular Mechanics, Vanderbilt University professor of biological science Kenneth Catania took the initiative to stick his arm into a tank with a young electric eel and see just how powerful its shock was. This was part of a paper he authored, which sought to measure the capability of the animal to transmit electrical power to its target, an area that hadn’t been directly studied, despite the well-documented abilities of the electric eel.
It was difficult for Catania not to flinch when he got shocked by the electric eel. But he observed that the involuntary arm withdrawal that took place whenever he got zapped was proof positive of the animal’s ability to launch powerful leaping attacks as a form of self-defense against other creatures. In the end, the scientist escaped relatively unharmed, despite feeling a definite impact in his arm from the jolt.
“Greatly exceeding thresholds for the withdrawal reflexes in diverse species provides a convenient benchmark for rating the averseness of the eel’s attack, and it is a testament to the potential effectiveness of the leaping defense.”
As explained by Gizmodo, electric eels generate an electric discharge of over 800 volts, allowing the fish to stun both underwater predators and prey, and also attack land-dwelling predators with the aforementioned leaping defense. The juvenile electric eel that shocked Catania was only able to release 40 to 50 mA of current, and while that only translates to a fraction of the eels’ maximum capabilities, the Vanderbilt scientist noted that the shock is still “far above the levels” researchers usually use to study pain and withdrawal reflexes.
One dedicated biologist endured an electric eel’s attack for the love of science. //t.co/eqfT8BI5bd
— Science News (@ScienceNews) September 16, 2017
Prior to Catania’s endeavor, only one other person had documented how living creatures could be shocked by an electric eel, and that was German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who noted his findings more than 200 years ago, according to The Verge. This was observed when the eels leapt out of a pool to attack wild horses, and when Catania noticed how eels in his lab would similarly leap at a net’s handle and electrify it after trying to avoid its mesh, that partly inspired him to conduct the study that’s since gone viral in recent days.
— Nat Geo WILD (@natgeowild) September 14, 2016
Given that leaping attacks are substantially more powerful than the shocks electric eels can send out in the water, Catania took a lot of risks when conducting the study. But as Washington University in St. Louis neuroscientist Bruce Carlson told The Verge, one experiment with one eel is not enough to quantify the amount of shock the eels unleash against predators.
“These measurements should be considered ballpark estimates of the effect of this behavior on potential predators,” said Carlson, who was not involved in the study.
Meanwhile, it would appear that a lot of people are interested in taking part in similar experiments in the future. Catania told The Verge that he’s gotten “plenty of volunteers” for these experiments, and while they seem more than willing to get shocked by electric eels for the sake of science, it goes without saying that is something you wouldn’t want to try at home.
[Featured Image by Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock]