Visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium have the chance to view a one-of-a-kind light show this holiday season as Miguel Wattson, the aquarium’s tweeting electric eel, “lights” up a Christmas tree with his bio-electric discharges.
The “Shocking around the Christmas Tree” exhibit features a special system connected to Miguel’s tank that causes the light strands on a nearby tree to glow.
“Whenever Miguel discharges electricity, sensors in the water deliver the charge to a set of speakers,” said Joey Turnipseed, the Aquarium’s audio-visual production specialist, in a statement. “The speakers convert the discharge into the sound you hear and the festively flashing lights.”
The lights aren’t actually powered by Miguel Wattson. Rather, the intensity of their glow corresponds to the strength of Miguel’s discharged power, which is then picked up by sensors in the tank that are connected to the Christmas tree, notes the aquarium on its YouTube page.
“The rapid, dim blinking of the lights is caused by the constant, low-voltage blips of electricity he releases when he’s trying to find food,” said Aquarist Kimberly Hurt. “The bigger flashes are caused by the higher voltage shocks he emits when he’s eating or excited.”
Despite their namesake, electric eels are not true eels at all but rather freshwater knifefish more closely related to catfish and carp than other eels. These freshwater fish can generate up to a whopping 860 volts of electricity, the highest charge of any known animal, enough to power a refrigerator.
Electrophorus electricus are found in slow-moving, murky rivers across northern South America. When rivers are low during the dry season, E. electricus are at risk of predators who hunt in the shallow waters. Water conducts electricity and carries the electric pulse, allowing the animal to zap would-be predators with their nifty defense mechanism. When that doesn’t do the trick, an electric eel can jump out of the water and slide its body against a predator, targeting its shock directly. On the offensive, electric eels use their shock to hunt. Prey can be difficult to see in muddy waters, so motion-sensitive hairs along the fish's body – also known as the lateral line system – can detect pressure changes in the surrounding water. When prey is nearby, the eel emits two rapid electric pulses, called a doublet, which stuns and kills its victims.
E. electricus individuals can also communicate with one another using low pulsating electric organ discharges whose frequency varies between males and females, as well as individuals.