How Electric Are Electric Eels?

So you're walking along the beach of the ocean of your choice, and it's night, and you're using your great big flashlight (we know about cell phones and flashlights, but bear with us, please) to look for crazy things that have washed up on the beach. And your flashlight batteries die. So you take out the batteries, put them in your pocket for recycling later, reach into a nearby tide pool, stuff an electric eel into the device, and voilà — let there be light. The mission continues.

Well, no, not really, drat the luck. But electric eels are still fascinating.

First of all, electric eels aren't really eels. They're actually a form of knifefish, which are more like catfish, though that would take away the alliterative value of "electric eels." (On the other hand, there might very well have been a '60s rock band named "the Electric Catfish." Possibly punk zydeco.) And unless you're walking on a beach in South America, you aren't likely to run into one. And you're thinking, "Or swim into one, because they're fish, buddy." And yes. But unlike most fish, electric eels come to the surface to breathe air. So if by chance you decide to try walking on water the next time you're on a beach in South America, you might want to wear some kind of insulating flip-flop.

As the name implies, electric eels are super electric

Yes, these shocking creatures really do generate electricity, which they use both to stun their own small prey and as a defense against large predators. They can vary the amount of energy discharge, depending on the circumstance, kind of like the way a skunk doesn't use all of its scent all at once when it's threatened.

It all depends on the size of the eel in question and the circumstances. Scientific American tells us that as it is, an eel will produce a shock for about two milliseconds, but part of the force is dissipated by the water in which they live. If they were, say, strolling along that aforementioned beach, out in the air (work with us here), the generated current could be as high as one ampere ... or the equivalent of a 500-volt battery. So yes, as the BBC's Science Focus tells us, a human being can get a nasty surprise if they get too close to or touch an electric eel. And by nasty surprise, we're talking about a "significant injury."

In other words, if your batteries run out in your flashlight, don't go reaching for an eel. After all, you've got that flashlight on your cell phone, right?