Which creature looks like a snake, is actually a fish, and has shocking abilities?
The Electric Eel!
Electric eels are not actually eels. They are a type of (scaleless) freshwater fish found mostly in the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers of South America. They live along coastal plains and swamps, in very muddy water. Add to this dark environment the fact that they’re nocturnal and have poor eyesight, and you might wonder how they find their way to food. Evolution to the rescue, for they have a stellar sense of smell.
These muddy waters are generally low-oxygen, so electric eels surface every 10 minutes or so to breathe.
That’s right – a scaleless, air-breathing fish!
Electric eels got their name after the electric charge they produce using three special organs – the main organ, Hunter’s organ, and Sach’s organ – along their abdomen. They use this shock to stun prey or scare away predators. They can also create a weak electric signal that is utilized as a radar to find a mate or potential prey, which includes small fish, small mammals, and invertebrates.
Despite being a solitary animal, in places where prey cross rivers in abundant numbers, electric eels will gather together to generate enough electricity to shock the prey. Electric eels don’t have teeth, so they rely on effective shocks to force involuntary muscle contractions in their prey, causing fatigue and allowing the eel to take advantage.
Even though many people fear electric eels for this ability, these creatures are not aggressive (unless, of course, you’re seen as a predator).
How are human attitudes impacting electric eels?
Habitat destruction and degradation in South American wetlands and forests pose a threat to many species, electric eels among them.
Another threat to electric eels is how humans view and treat them. If you search for “electric eels” on the internet, you will see what I mean. The most common adjectives attributed to them include “aggressive,” “monster,” “deadly,” and so on. This leads to people being afraid of these animals. It also leads to people attempting to wrestle, or capture, an electric eel in the name of ‘human superiority.’ By forcing electric eels out of their homes and into man-made spaces, such as to test their shocking abilities, a negative reputation of these animals is perpetuated and, as a result, violence occurs.
Let this be our reminder to be careful with our language, when discussing any species or any other human being.