Kenneth C. Catania
By Carl Zimmer
For thousands of years, fishermen knew that certain fish could deliver a painful shock, even though they had no idea how it happened. Only in the late 1700s did naturalists contemplate a bizarre possibility: These fish might release jolts of electricity — the same mysterious substance as in lightning.
That possibility led an Italian physicist named Alessandro Volta in 1800 to build an artificial electric fish. He observed that electric stingrays had dense stacks of muscles, and he wondered if they allowed the animals to store electric charges. To mimic the muscles, he built a stack of metal disks, alternating between copper and zinc.
Volta found that his model could store a huge amount of electricity, which he could unleash as shocks and sparks. Today, much of society runs on updated versions of Volta’s artificial electric fish. We call them batteries.
Now a new study suggests that electric fish have anticipated other kinds of technology. The research, by Kenneth C. Catania, a biologist at Vanderbilt University, reveals a remarkable sophistication in the way electric eels deploy their shocks.
Dr. Catania, who published the study on Thursday in the journal Science, found that the eels use short shocks like a remote control on their victims, flushing their prey out of hiding. And then they can deliver longer shocks that paralyze their prey at a distance, in precisely the same way that a Taser stops a person cold.
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