Electric Eel

Electric eels are famed for their ability to produce an electric shock in order to stun prey or deter predators. But did you know they aren't actually eels?

Electric eel
Electric eel in a tank

Electric eel in a tank


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Gymnotiformes
Family: Gymnotidae
Species: Electrophorus electricus


The electric eel is not actually an eel but in fact a kind of fish, called a knifefish, and are closely related to carp and catfish. They can grow up to 2.5 metres long and reach 20 kilograms in weight. They are well-known for their ability to generate an electric charge and the majority of their body is made up of the electricity-producing tissue.

Electric eels inhabit the murky beds of flooded plains or swamps and still pools or tributaries of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers in South America. They can be seen regularly surfacing or briefly wriggling onto land in order to breathe air.

Attenborough on Electric Eels


The electric eel's charge is produced by around 6,000 specialised cells, called electrocytes, which are lined up in sequence. This is a similar principle to lining up a series of batteries in a torch.

Each electrocyte cell will only generate a relatively small 0.15 volts. However, when each is discharged simultaneously in sequence the electric eel can produce a shock of up to 600 volts!

Human deaths from electrocution are rare, unless the victim has a heart condition. However, death can sometimes occur from drowning having been stunned by the shock.

We are still not entirely sure how the electric eel manages to protect itself from its own shock, although it is thought that insulating tissue over primary organs and habituation to the shock provide the best explanation.

Electric eel helped science to harness the power of electricity

Electric eel helped science to harness the power of electricity


Electric eels use their electric discharge to predate on fish and amphibians, and sometimes even birds and small mammals, stunning their prey before swallowing them.

Like other fish, electric eels are able to utilise an electric sense to feel in the muddy water that they frequent. This murky habitat means that their eyesight has diminished over the generations and is now very poor. However, electric eels have taken the fishes sixth sense a step further, emitting a low-level charge that allows them to sense, much like a radar, where the stunned prey is.

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In the dry season, male electric eels make a bubbly nest out of their saliva for females to lay their eggs into.

Thousands of young will hatch in one nest feeding mainly on invertebrates, although they can sometimes turn cannibalistic. These young electric eels are only able to generate a modest charge.

Quick Facts

  • Electric eels aren't actually eels!
  • They can be longer than the average human man is tall.
  • Can generate 50 times the voltage of an average car battery.