Electric eels may not be the world's largest and scariest predators, but they definitely are one of the most skilled and most powerful.
A recent study discovered that when electric eels curve their bodies, they are able to manipulate basic principles of physics and increase the shock value of the electricity which their bodies emit. This ability comes in handy whenever they are hunting prey, researchers say.
In a study issued in the journal Current Biology, Kenneth Catania, a professor from Vanderbilt University who has been studying electric eels for three years now, first noticed the electric eel's special tactic of looping around their prey in his lab. The electric eel would position its head and tail close but these ends never touched.
Catania said he placed current-measuring electrodes into the dead body of a small fish and then lured an electric eel with the bait by dangling it on a wire. When the electric eel attacked the fish, he tugged the wire to simulate a struggle.
To gain control of the fish, the electric eel would curl itself around it and sandwich it between its head and body. Catania measured the produced current in each position of the eel and found that the current emitted when the eel curled itself was significantly stronger than its normal position.
This is how it works: when the electric eel curls itself, it actually enables the two poles of its electric organ to come together. The electric eel's special organ is found at the base of its tail and and at its head. These electric organs can give off up to 600 volts of energy, which is five times greater than the voltage of standard wall sockets.
The electric eel does not give off extra energy, but it amplifies it, researchers say.
Catania then tested how much damage the eel's electrical charges could do on prey by mimicking the recorded voltage and applying it to crayfish tails. He found the prey would experience extreme muscle fatigue and loss of control over muscle contraction.
"Each of these pulses the eel gives off is activating the nervous system of the prey," said Catania. "The eel essentially has remote control over the prey's muscles and runs them to exhaustion, leaving the prey temporarily helpless."
He explained that most snakes render their prey helpless by inactivating the latter's muscles chemically, but electric eels are impressive because they use electricity.
"It's straight out of intro physics, it's as if the electric eels took a class in physics and said, 'hey, we've got a handle on this,'" he added. "That's what's beautiful about it."
However, Catania says there is still one thing that scientists do not understand about electric eels. How do they not shock themselves to death?
"How they protect their nervous system and their own brain and their own muscles from being activated — as far as I know, it's pretty much an open question," he said.
Catania is known for his groundbreaking discoveries about electric eels. Just recently, he also published a study about how electric eels attack their prey's neurons directly and how these animals use their pulses as some form of radar.
Watch the electric eel's special shock tactic here: