Photo: Electric eel

Electric eels can generate an electrical charge of up to 600 volts in order to stun prey and keep predators at bay.

Photograph by George Grall

Map

Map: Electric eel range

Electric Eel Range

Fast Facts

Type:
Fish
Diet:
Carnivore
Average life span in the wild:
15 years
Size:
6 to 8 ft (1.8 to 2.5 m)
Weight:
44 lbs (20 kg)
Group name:
Swarm
Did you know?
The shock of an electric eel has been known to knock a horse off its feet.
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Electric eel compared with adult man

Despite their serpentine appearance, electric eels are not actually eels. Their scientific classification is closer to carp and catfish.

These famous freshwater predators get their name from the enormous electrical charge they can generate to stun prey and dissuade predators. Their bodies contain electric organs with about 6,000 specialized cells called electrocytes that store power like tiny batteries. When threatened or attacking prey, these cells will discharge simultaneously, emitting a burst of at least 600 volts, five times the power of a standard U.S. wall socket.

They live in the murky streams and ponds of the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, feeding mainly on fish, but also amphibians and even birds and small mammals. As air-breathers, they must come to the surface frequently. They also have poor eyesight, but can emit a low-level charge, less than 10 volts, which they use like radar to navigate and locate prey.

Electric eels can reach huge proportions, exceeding 8 feet (2.5 meters) in length and 44 pounds (20 kilograms) in weight. They have long, cylindrical bodies and flattened heads and are generally dark green or grayish on top with yellowish coloring underneath.

Human deaths from electric eels are extremely rare. However, multiple shocks can cause respiratory or heart failure, and people have been known to drown in shallow water after a stunning jolt.

Electric eels are extremely common throughout their range.

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