For hundreds of years, scientists had thought there was just one species of Electrophorus, the electric eel, swimming through Amazonian waterways. Turns out, there’s three. And one of the newly described taxa delivers an electric discharge of 860 volts, “making it the strongest living bioelectricity generator,” the authors write in their report, published in Nature Communications today (September 10).
“That’s bonkers,” Kory Evans, an evolutionary biologist who studies electric fish at Brown University and was not involved in the study, tells Nova Next. “The fact that there’s a living organism that has the ability to generate this kind of violent electricity is really shocking, no pun intended.”
Carl Linnaeus described Electrophorus electricus 250 years ago, and since then it’s been the lone species in the genus. Then along comes Carlos David de Santana. As a kid, he watched electric eels swim in the Amazon River, and now as an ichthyologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, he studies its—or rather, their—natural history.
He and his colleagues collected the animals in the study as part of a project to describe the evolutionary history of the region, according to The New York Times. The team gathered 107 specimens of the fish from far-flung sites around South America and from museums around the world. Analyzing their genetics, morphology, and electrogenesis, they determined that Electrophorus is composed of E. electricus, residing in the so-called Guiana Shield of northern South America, E. voltai, swimming in waters of the Brazilian Shield just south of there, and E. varii, living in rivers from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. E. voltai is the species with the most powerful electric output.
Biologists tell The Atlantic they aren’t surprised there is more diversity than previously documented among these fish (which aren’t actually eels, but a type of knife fish). “We sort of lump the weirdos together,” Prosanta Chakrabarty from Louisiana State University tells The Atlantic. “Oh, obviously, this thing is that thing, and no one looks more carefully,” he explains. “We all thought that an electric eel is an electric eel.”
Kerry Grens is a senior editor and the news director of The Scientist. Email her at email@example.com and follow her on twitter @kerrygrens.