You’re wading in a pond in the Amazon Rainforest when something slimy brushes against your leg. Then you feel another one. And another. You look down to see that you’re surrounded by a swarm of electric eels, and they do not seem friendly.
Electric eels can discharge up to 650 volts of electricity. That’s over 5 times the voltage of an American power outlet!
If you think that sounds bad, take a closer look at the eels surrounding you. Those are Volta electric eels, known to pack an 860-volt punch. That’s the strongest electrical discharge of any animal. They have been known to knock an entire horse off its feet with a shock.
So what would that shock do to you? Why would they attack a human? And could they follow you out of the water?
They’re called eels, but these creatures belong to a family called knifefish. There are only three species. Linnaeus’s electric eel, and Vari’s electric eel, need to be close to their prey to attack.
But you like to live on the edge, so we saved this one for you. It’s Volta’s electric eel. And, lucky you, there’s a swarm of them around you. How are you going to survive an electric eel attack?
Step 1. Bring a friend
If you’re going to visit Brazil’s Amazon River basin, bring other people with you. On average, electric eels range from 1.8 to 2.5 m (6-8 ft) and weigh around 20 kg (44 lbs). And 80% of their bodies are electric organs, with about 6,000 specialized cells that store their power. And the newly-discovered Volta’s eel packs up to 860 volts, 200 volts more than the other electric eels.
Although scientists used to think eels were solitary creatures, researchers have seen Volta’s eels working together to attack their prey, hunting in swarms of up to 100 or more eels. If they attack, you could get hit with a lot of voltage.
If you are shocked, it could make you unconscious. You could drown in the water. So, someone needs to be there to pull you out and save your life. The fish have a low amperage, so one electric shock probably wouldn’t be enough to kill you.
But if a swarm of electric eels attacks you, multiple shocks could be dangerous. Having friends there to pull you out of the water could help you survive.
Step 2. Don’t Attract Attention
You’re swimming in the Amazon River, minding your own business. And then, the long, sinuous form of an electric eel swims in front of you.
There are a few things in your favor though. First, electric eels are more scared of you than you are of them. And they have terrible eyesight. So, take a deep breath, and don’t attract their attention.
Step 3. Stay fit
We all get hungry. So, if an electric eel does attack you, being healthy could improve your chance of surviving. The better shape you are in, the more likely you are to resist being shocked into cardiac arrest. That could be a death sentence, especially when you’re swimming. So, before you head for areas where electric eels live, head to the gym and get in shape.
Step 4. Get to land
If a swarm of electric eels is swimming with you, or passing by, it’s a good idea to give them some space. So look for an opening in the swarm, and slowly head toward land. And watch out for the eel’s tail. It’s the most dangerous part, because that’s where its powerful electric organ is located.
But even on land, you’ll need to be careful. Electric eels breathe air, so they have to come to the surface. Try to resist temptation, and don’t look in the water. Even staring in the water could get you zapped!
While their shocks are enough to keep you away, they are equally dangerous to other eels. They can shock each other accidentally. And if they get hit near their organs, it will kill them instantly. So while these are powerful creatures, their lives are full of risk.
- “Electric Eel | National Geographic”. 2021. Animals.
- “The Truth About Electric Eels Has Long Been Overlooked”. Yong, Ed. 2019. The Atlantic.
- “Electric eels have a shocking tactic: hunting in packs”. nature.com.
- “Electric eels use shocks to sense”. 2015. Nature 526 (7574): 479-479. doi:10.1038/526479a