A new study has revealed that more than stun their prey, eels can use their electric organs to effectively remotely control the fish they hunt.
The findings are the outcome of a nine-month study in which researchers at Vanderbilt University in the US used a high-speed camera to slow down time and observe precisely how the eel hunts and catches its prey.
Using a pair low intensity pulses to make its victim involuntarily twitch and reveal its location, the eel unleashes a high powered electric discharge which leaves the prey literally frozen in a state of shock, basically taking over its nervous system.
“It really is a remote control in a sense of the eels’ neurons activating through the electric generating organs the neurons in the prey. And so they are remotely activating their preys’ muscles and essentially taking over their peripheral nervous system,” says Ken Catania, professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University.
Until recently it was thought that eels simply shock their prey to death before eating them. But what the researchers witnessed was a complex series of electrifying events that unravel faster than a blink of an eye and are the result of the eel’s unique anatomy, which has been fine tuned over millions of years of evolution.
“The front, maybe one fifth or less, of the animal is all of the normal internal organs and the back end is mostly muscles that have been converted into energy-generating batteries that are lined up in a series like a big flash light,” says Professor Catania.
Much more remains to be understood about eels, like how their bodies are shielded from the intense electricity they produce. And in further research, scientists are trying to better understand eels at a molecular level, to find out how they and other electric fish have managed to build a battery from muscle tissue.