Electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) are not, in fact, eels. They are completely unrelated to the Anguilliformes order, which includes around eight hundred species of true eels, none of which is able to produce potentially lethal electrical charges. What we call the electric eel evolved its eel-like form entirely independently of eels. In fact, it is a member of the knife fish family, all of which are native to South America.
As the only species in its genus, the electric eel is unique. The snake-like body of the electric eel is cylindrical and can grow to around two meters (6 feet 7 inches) in length, and weigh as much as 20 kilograms (44 pounds). The upper part of its long body is dark brown or gray in color, while its underbelly is yellowish-orange.
Devoid of dorsal and pelvic fins, in common with other knife fish, the electric eel uses its anal fin to propel itself through the water, in a decidedly snake-like series of movements; however, unlike snakes, electric eels are able to swim forward, backward and hover, as they search for their prey.
The electric eel is distributed widely across South America. It can be found in Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, including Tambopata National Reserve. The preferred habitat of the electric eel is the still or slow moving water of oxbow lakes, streams, pools and areas of flooded forest, within both the Orinoco and Amazon river basins, where they feed on invertebrates, fish and even small mammals.
In common with the mighty paiche, the electric eel’s life cycle is dominated by the fluctuating wet and dry season water levels experienced in the tropical forests of South America. When water levels rise in the rainy season and the rivers, lakes, pools and streams of flooded forests are reconnected, young electric eels scatter across their habitat to occupy new territory.
In the dry season, along with many other aquatic species, electric eel populations become concentrated in more isolated bodies of water. It is during the dry season that male electric eels make a nest and females lay their eggs. As many as 3000 young may hatch from a single nest, and when the rainy season rolls around once more, the surviving juveniles will be ready to migrate into other waterways.
Although common, the electric eel is rarely encountered by humans. It is a bottom-dweller like its catfish cousin, only surfacing to breathe. Electric eels have adapted to the poorly oxygenated water common to their Amazon and Orinoco basin habitats by breathing air. They achieve this by surfacing every ten minutes or so to gulp down air via the lung-like vascular organs that open into their mouth. Most of the electric eel’s oxygen is obtained in this way.
The electric eel owes its fearsome reputation to its ability to stun potential prey by delivering a massive electric shock. Electric eels use three abdominal organs to produce electricity. By activating thousands of cells simultaneously across its nervous system, an electric eel can produce enough electricity to stun or repel any animal, meaning that it can use this unique adaptation to capture prey or to discourage predators. Electric eels also use low electrical discharges to communicate with each other, as well as to locate and gather information on the movements of other aquatic life forms.