The shocking predatory strike of the electric eel

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Science  05 Dec 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6214, pp. 1231-1234
DOI: 10.1126/science.1260807

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Electric eels can incapacitate prey with an electric discharge, but the mechanism of the eel’s attack is unknown. Through a series of experiments, I show that eel high-voltage discharges can activate prey motor neurons, and hence muscles, allowing eels to remotely control their target. Eels prevent escape in free-swimming prey using high-frequency volleys to induce immobilizing whole-body muscle contraction (tetanus). Further, when prey are hidden, eels can emit periodic volleys of two or three discharges that cause massive involuntary twitch, revealing the prey’s location and eliciting the full, tetanus-inducing volley. The temporal patterns of eel electrical discharges resemble motor neuron activity that induces fast muscle contraction, suggesting that eel high-voltage volleys have been selected to most efficiently induce involuntary muscle contraction in nearby animals.

Eels shock their prey into risky behavior

Electric eels can deliver a shock powerful enough to immobilize a horse, but their true targets are smaller fish and invertebrate prey. Now, Catania suggests that electric eels “remotely control” their prey's movements. The electrical discharge causes whole-body contraction and twitch in the prey by affecting motor neurons rather than muscles directly. This first stimulates prey to move and reveal itself and then to freeze, allowing its capture.

Science, this issue p. 1231

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