Newly discovered electric eel delivers record-breaking shocks

Harriet Brewis
The South American Electrophorus varii electric eel is one of two newly identified species: D. Bastos

A newly-discovered electric eel living in the Amazon basin can deliver record-breaking shocks, a new study has revealed.

Two entirely new species of electric eel were found by researchers from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, tripling the known number of electric eel species.

One of the new discoveries, Electrophorus voltai, can discharge up to 860 volts of electricity, the study published in the journal Nature Communications found.

This is almost four times the voltage found in a typical UK lightbulb.

It is also significantly more than the 650 volts generated by the known electric eel species, Electrophorus electricus.

The Electrophorus voltai species is capable of generating a greater electrical discharge than any other known animal (Ryan Lavery (Smithsonian))

Researchers said the findings were evidence of the incredible diversity in the Amazon rainforest, much of which is still unknown to science.

“In spite of all human impact on the Amazon rainforest in the last 50 years, we can still discover giant fishes like the two new species of electric eels,” said lead researcher and Smithsonian zoologist Carlos David de Santana.

He added that the research “indicates that an enormous amount of species are waiting to be discovered in the Amazon rainforest, many of which may harbour cures for diseases or inspire technological innovations”.

"If you can discover a new eight-foot-long fish after 250 years of scientific exploration, can you imagine what remains to be discovered in that region?" he wrote in a press release.

Carlos David de Santana searching for electric eels (E. Kauano)

Electric eels, which are actually a type of fish with an eel-like appearance, can grow to up to eight feet (2.4 metres).

In 1799, they inspired the design of the first electric battery.

For centuries, scientists believed the electric eels found in swamps, streams, creeks and rivers across South America were all the same species.

But the Smithsonian study showed that the eels actually belong to three different species.

The South American Electrophorus varii electric eel is one of two newly identified species (D. Bastos)

All three species look almost identical externally and use their electricity to navigate, communicate, hunt and for self-defence.

But when Dr de Santana and his colleagues analysed 107 samples, they found that the three species had different skull shapes, genetic material, and levels of voltage.

The researchers believe the three species began to evolve from their common South American ancestor around 7.1 million years ago.

Each eel group’s voltage may have been influenced by the conductivity of the waters they lived in, the research found.

Arial view of a typical electric eel upland habitat (Ryan Lavery (Smithsonian))

For example, Electrophorus voltai lived in the clear waters of the highlands which did not conduct electricity well, so its stronger voltage may be an adaptation to the water’s low conductivity.

Around 250 species of fish are able to generate electricity, but only electric eels use electricity to hunt and for self-defence.

Dr de Santana said the newly identifies electric eel species sparked new opportunities for investigation and discovery.

Speaking of the Electrophorus voltai’s unique system for producing electricity, he said: "It could really have different enzymes, different compounds that could be used in medicine or could inspire new technology."