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article imageSurprise! Scientists find two new 'high-voltage' electric eels

By Karen Graham     Sep 11, 2019 in Science
South American rivers are home to at least three different species of electric eels, including one newly identified species capable of generating a greater electrical discharge than any other known animal.
It should come as no surprise that a new plant or animal species is discovered in the Amazon Basin on average, every other day. And scientists have known for at least 250 years that electric eels live in the rainforest's waters, using electricity to stun their prey.
Researchers tell us these findings are evidence of the great biodiversity found in the Amazon Rainforest - much of it unknown to science - illustrating the importance of protecting a habitat at risk from deforestation, logging, and fires.
Now, scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History have discovered that electric eels in the Amazon basin belong to three different species that evolved from a shared ancestor millions of years ago. Their findings are reported Sept. 10, 2019, in the journal Nature Communications.
"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 C. David de Santana, a zoologist working with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, reports AFP.
"These fish grow to be seven to eight feet long. They're really conspicuous," Santana said in the press release. "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?"
Electric eels are not what they seem to be
Electric eels are actually a kind of fish and not an eel. However, they were the inspiration for the first electric battery. Based on the belief there were only one species of electric eel in the Amazon, de Santana and his team decided to find out if this was true.
Electrophorus voltaic generates the most powerful  biologically produced electric shock: 860 Volts!
Electrophorus voltaic generates the most powerful, biologically produced electric shock: 860 Volts!
Smithsonian's NMNH
"Electric eel physiology inspired the design of Volta's first electric battery, provided a basis... for treating neurodegenerative diseases and recently promoted the advance of hydrogel batteries that could be used to power medical implants," he said.
At first, examining the various specimens of electric eels collected in different parts of the Amazon Basin, the scientists could see very little visual differences. However, further examination, including DNA analysis revealed they had three different species in the 107 samples they had collected.
The species included the preciously known Electrophorus electricus, along with Electrophorus voltai and Electrophorus varii. Subtle differences were found, such as the skull shape, and defining differences in the pectoral fin. There were also distinct differences in the arrangement of pores on the body.
Electrophorus tree of life and time of species diversification. Time-calibrated genealogy of Electro...
Electrophorus tree of life and time of species diversification. Time-calibrated genealogy of Electrophorus based on a maximum clade credibility (MCC) species tree derived from *BEAST2.4 analyses of 10 genes (colored lines) and 94 specimens of Electrophorus (relaxed molecular clock and uncorrelated lognormal model implemented). Purple bars represent 95% highest posterior density distributions for the estimated divergence time of each major node.
de Santana et.al.
Perhaps more telling, the three species had their own geographic distribution. But the most "shocking" revelation the researchers found was that Electrophorus voltai can deliver a charge of 860 volts. The highest charge previously recorded from an electric eel was 650 volts, four times that of an average U.S. wall socket.
And speaking of shock, electric eels have evolved to use their shock mechanism for a variety of purposes, including hunting prey, self-defense, and navigation. Electricity is generated from three specialized electric organs that can emit charges of varying strengths for different purposes.
More about Electric eels, highvoltage, Amazon rainforest, specieslevel diversity, Biodiversity
 
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