1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Electric Eel

ELECTRIC EEL (Gymnotus electricus), a member of the family of fishes known as Gymnotidae. In spite of their external similarity the Gymnotidae have nothing to do with the eels (Anguilla). They resemble the latter in the elongation of the body, the large number of vertebrae (240 in Gymnotus), and the absence of pelvic fins; but they differ in all the more important characters of internal structure. They are in fact allied to the carps or Cyprinidae and the cat-fishes or Siluridae. In common with these two families and the Characinidae of Africa and South America, the Gymnotidae possess the peculiar structures called ossicula auditus or Weberian ossicles. These are a chain of small bones belonging to the first four vertebrae, which are much modified, and connecting the air-bladder with the auditory organs. Such an agreement in the structure of so complicated and specialized an apparatus can only be the result of a community of descent of the families possessing it. Accordingly these families are now placed together in a distinct sub-order, the Ostariophysi. The Gymnotidae are strongly modified and degraded Characinidae. In them the dorsal and caudal fins are very rudimentary or absent, and the anal is very long, extending from the anus, which is under the head or throat, to the end of the body.

Gymnotus is the only genus of the family which possesses electric organs. These extend the whole length of the tail, which is four-fifths of the body. They are modifications of the lateral muscles and are supplied with numerous branches of the spinal nerves. They consist of longitudinal columns, each composed of an immense number of “electric plates.” The posterior end of the organ is positive, the anterior negative, and the current passes from the tail to the head. The maximum shock is given when the head and tail of the Gymnotus are in contact with different points in the surface of some other animal. Gymnotus electricus attains a length of 3 ft. and the thickness of a man’s thigh, and frequents the marshes of Brazil and the Guianas, where it is regarded with terror, owing to the formidable electrical apparatus with which it is provided. When this natural battery is discharged in a favourable position, it is sufficiently powerful to stun the largest animal; and according to A. von Humboldt, it has been found necessary to change the line of certain roads passing through the pools frequented by the electric eels. These fish are eaten by the Indians, who, before attempting to capture them, seek to exhaust their electrical power by driving horses into the ponds. By repeated discharges upon these they gradually expend this marvellous force; after which, being defenceless, they become timid, and approach the edge for shelter, when they fall an easy prey to the harpoon. It is only after long rest and abundance of food that the fish is able to resume the use of its subtle weapon. Humboldt’s description of this method of capturing the fish has not, however, been verified by recent travellers.