Should you be worried about getting shocked by an electric eel the next time you wade in a creek or go for a swim in a lake or river? Unless you live in South America, the answer is… no! But electric eels are real.

Known by the scientific name Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel is an electric fish able to generate powerful electric shocks. Electric eels use their shocking abilities for hunting and self-defense.

In fact, electric eels are not actually eels at all. They’re a specific kind of knifefish that lives mainly in bodies of fresh water in South America, such as the Amazon River.

Electric eels are more closely related to catfish than true eels. True eels cannot produce electric shocks like electric eels can.

Electric eels have long bodies (up to six feet long) shaped like a cylinder. Since they look a lot like true eels, they’ve been called electric eels since they were discovered. Electric eels can weigh up to 45 pounds.

Unlike many fish, electric eels breathe air. They regularly rise to the surface every 10 minutes or so to take a breath before heading back underwater.

Electric eels have three sets of internal organs that produce electricity. The organs are made up of special cells called “electrocytes.” Electric eels can create both low and high voltage charges with their electrocytes.

Electric eels generate their electric shocks much like a battery. Like the stacked plates of a battery, the stacked electric cells can generate an electrical shock of 500 volts and 1 ampere. Such a shock would be deadly for an adult human!

Electric eels can vary the intensity of their shocks, using lower voltages for hunting and higher voltages for self-defense.

Most of the time, electric eels produce lower voltage shocks just strong enough to stun prey or deter a threatening animal. When threatened, electric eels can produce intermittent electric shocks for at least an hour without showing any signs of getting tired.

Electric eels are usually only safe to be around when they’re in a zoo or an aquarium. Some people have been able to keep them as pets, but they’re very difficult — and dangerous — to try to catch in the wild.

Electric eels need at least a 200-gallon tank and usually must be kept by themselves since they will attack other fish.


22 Join the Discussion

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  1. I think that it is so cool that electric eels can breathe air! So, where do these eels live in North America? Or do they only live in South America? Do they only live in warm climates? I bet that tomorrow’s wonder will be about clocks! (And maybe how they work.)

    • Hi, Anna B! Thanks so much for visiting Wonderopolis and sharing this awesome comment! Electric eels (a specific kind of knifefish) really only hang out in bodies of freshwater in South America. We don’t think you’ll find any living in the waters of North America. :-)

  2. Hi wonderopolis!!! I found today’s wonder extremely interesting. I had no idea that eels could control the amount of electricy that they produce. By the way, Anna my friend, and I am visiting her,and I had to show her your website.

    I think that tomorrow’s wonder might be about time zones, and I will certainly have some time, tomorrow!!! I can’t wait to see if my prediction is correct :)

    • Hi, Meredith! You are a GREAT Wonder Friend for sharing Wonderopolis with Anna B! It’s fun to learn together with family and friends!

      Thanks so much for letting us know you liked today’s Wonder. We thought it was really neat to find out that electric eels could produce shocks on and off for over an hour! WOW! We also thought it was interesting that they can weigh up to 45 pounds…that’s one BIG SHOCKER! :-)

  3. Hello again!
    I hope that you don’t mind if I ask a ton of questions!
    How often do you change the backround?

    • Hi again to you too, Anna B! We LOVE questions here at Wonderopolis…wondering about things helps us learn and grow!

      We change the backgrounds at least once a week, and even more than that on super special occasions! Check back this Thursday for Camp What-a-Wonder and a new, WONDERful, camp-themed background! Thanks for all your great questions! :-)

  4. Oh my gosh what a great WONDER and I am so impressed with the new facts that I learned. However, even more FUN is that we have a new member of MC class: Welcome Anna B! I love when friends teach each other about Wonderopolis thanks Meredith!!!

    • Hi, Dexter! Thanks for hanging out in Wonderopolis today and for letting us know you learned something new from this Wonder of the Day! :-)

  5. That amazed me I never knew they were really electric, I always thought they were just called an electric eel. I thought that video was very cool! How did this video interest you?

    • Hi, Shay Haas! Thank you for leaving us this great comment! We are always interested in learning more about the world around us (like about electric eels, for instance). That’s why we WONDER so much! Thank you for wondering, too! :-)

    • We agree, Sarah! It is pretty cool to think that one eel can supply enough electricity to light it up like that! Thanks for letting us know you liked this Wonder! :-)

  6. WOW, I really never knew that electric eels breath air. Also that they are related to catfish. But I never knew that they go to the surface every 10 minutes before going back underwater. I think it’s kind of crazy that they go back out of the water like we people do. Bye. Have a WONDERful day! ;)

    • Thanks for sharing all the cool things you learned about electric eels and also for wishing us a WONDERful day, Audrey! You are a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

    • WOW, your dad is one impressive guy, Wonder Friend L! Thanks for sharing your comment with us– what a cool connection! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Are eels really electric?
  • Are electric eels really eels?
  • Could an electric eel’s shock kill a human?

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