How Do Electric Eels Produce Electricity?
Electric eels use their ability of generating electricity for navigation and communication. However, the important purpose for which they use this energy is for electrocuting their prey. The electric current discharged by the electric eel can range from one ampere to 600 volts. It is said that electric eels can floor a horse crossing a stream from a distance of 20 feet. An electric shock of such intensity can easily kill human beings.
Electric eels have special body parts which help them to generate this electric current. In biological terms these electric charge producing organs are known as electrocytes, which are lined up in the tail region of the electric eel’s body and which cover almost four-fifth of its body. The electrocytes stack also consists of cell membranes which help eels in the process of generating electric current.
The electrocytes have around five to six thousand of electroplates in them. Electroplates in electrocytes resemble the cells in a conventional battery. These electroplates are capable of producing an electric charge and are stacked in such a manner that the charge can easily flow through them.
The electric organs are capable of producing two types of charges – high voltage charge and low voltage charge. The high voltage charge is used for stunning an enemy or a prey, whereas, the weaker charge is used for navigating and locating objects.
Moreover, the working of the electrocytes is similar to that of the nerve cell mechanism. Whenever the eel needs to generate an electric charge, a chemical signal is sent to the stack of electrocytes. The signal activates the flow of sodium and potassium ions in the cell membrane. The opposite flow of the sodium and potassium ions across the membrane results in the generation of an electric current. As more current is produced, more number of sodium and potassium ions flow through the membrane, making the current generated to flow through the electroplates. When the chemical signal is turned off, flow of ions stop and concentration of ions comes back to the normal level during eel’s resting period.
However, it is to note that the above mentioned process takes place within a few seconds. This means that eels are incapable of producing continuous electric charges and thus can produce only momentary electric shocks. Though human deaths due to such electric shocks have never been heard of, the shocks can lead to respiratory paralysis and even cardiac arrest in a human body. Also, many people have drowned to death after becoming unconscious by an Electric eel’s shock.