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SYFY WIRE biology

Watch: This Electric eel team-up delivers a supercharged shock

By Jeff Spry

Eclipsing some tried-and-true fishing tricks used by human anglers like shiny barbed lures and wiggling worms on hooks, these electric eels have banded together to deliver a high-voltage surprise to hapless fish swimming in a Brazilian lake on a sunny afternoon.

This shocking new video footage below, taken at a tiny lake on the banks of the Iriri River in Brazil's Amazon River Basin, finds a concentrated gang of Volta's electric eels (Electrophorus voltai) hunting in deadly packs of over 100. A few of these wicked predators then temporarily disperse to emit a supercharged blast that knocks any fish in the proximity out cold.

As described this week in the online journal Ecology and Evolution, pack hunting might be a common occurrence with land mammals, but this is the first time electric eels have been captured in the wild demonstrating their fatal dose of collective electricity. The species of knifefish observed is notorious for generating the most intense electric shock of any known animal. 

Scientists spot electric eels zapping prey in packs

"It's really amazing to find a behavior like that with eels that are 2.4, 2.5 meters [around 8 feet] long," said co-author David de Santana, a zoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. "One individual eel of this species can produce a high-voltage discharge of 860 volts. So, in theory, 10 electric eels can produce 8,600. So that's a lot. It's a really strong discharge, however the duration's really short."

As detailed in the study, de Santana and his research team believes this is a rare occasion and does not come together in this manner frequently. Uniting their stunning skills allows them to amplify their electric discharge for more greater effect and efficiency.

"Our initial hypothesis is that this behavior really occurs in locations with high prey abundance and also with long-term shelter for multiple eels," explained de Santana. "That means lots of fish and plenty of nooks and crannies for the eels to live in. These conditions may only exist in the middle of the Amazon."