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Newly discovered eel packs the biggest electrical punch of any known animal © Getty Images

Newly discovered eel packs the biggest electrical punch of any known animal

Published: 15th September, 2019 at 08:00
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E. voltai can produce a shock of 860 volts.

This is something to get amped up about: a team from the Smithsonian Institute has discovered a new species of electric eel that can generate an electrical shock of up to 860 volts, the strongest of any known animal.


Despite their misleading name, electric eels are actually naked-back knifefishes and are more closely related to catfish and carp than to other eel families. They can reach up to 2.5m in length and are the only fish capable of producing such strong electrical discharge via three electric organs. They use their powerful shocks for defence and for stunning prey.

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It was previously believed that there was just one species of electric eel - E. electricus - but a survey of 107 specimens collected in different parts of the Amazon in Brazil, Suriname, French Guiana and Guyana, has identified two further species – E. varii and E. voltai.

The new species were identified by comparing the eels’ DNA, body shape and preferred habitat, as well as by measuring the voltage of their electrical discharges. The team found that E. voltai discharged 860 volts, the most powerful shock ever measured in an animal.

“The discovery of new electric eel species in Amazonia, one of the planet's biodiversity hotspots, is suggestive of the vast amount of species that remain to be discovered in nature,” said Carlos David de Santana, associate researcher at the Smithsonian Institute.

“Furthermore, the region is of great interest to other scientific fields, such as medicine and biotechnology, reinforcing the need to protect and conserve it, and is important for studies involving partnerships among Brazilian researchers, and between us and groups in other countries, to explore the region's biodiversity.”


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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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