generating an electrifying conversation: do try not to be shocked
July 19, 2019 4:59 PM   Subscribe

We all know about the ability of electric eels to stun their prey with a powerful shock. But how did the eels evolve this power? It didn't start as a weapon: the electric eel's knifefish ancestors, like its modern cousins, used weak electric pulses to talk to one another just as we use weak pulses of pressure to create sounds. (They're not unique, either--six lineages of fish have evolved this ability.) But electric fish like the knifefish aren't the only ones listening under the water: there are plenty of electroceptive predators paying attention, too. In a story that starkly resembles the pressures on acoustic communication, electric fish have to modify their signals to avoid being overheard.

Electroception is actually quite common in aquatic species. Sharks, dolphins, most bony fish--even the humble platypus can sense electric signals, which it uses to help find its prey. In fact, electroception is so ancient that fossils demonstrating adaptations for electroception go all the way back to the very first vertebrates.
posted by sciatrix (18 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
What does this have to do with the Spice Girls?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:24 PM on July 19, 2019 [21 favorites]


Well, if you’re an eel, you wanna slam your body down and wind it all around to align the positive and negative poles of your electric field and maximize voltage discharge.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:11 PM on July 19, 2019 [7 favorites]


"During the 1st century Roman elite made pets of their eels. Antonia the Younger, the daughter of Mark Anthony and mother of the Emperor Claudius fastened earrings to the dorsal fin of her pet eel."

This is why I can't have nice things.
posted by clavdivs at 6:18 PM on July 19, 2019 [9 favorites]


That's why I felt so comfortable talking on the radio, the microphone converted my voice to electricity!
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:12 PM on July 19, 2019


Thanks for doing the homework for the rest of us, sciatrx!
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 7:41 PM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


What does this have to do with the Spice Girls?

I had been off the site all day and just sat down to read the last dozen or so posts, starting with the most recent. I gotta say that I read and reread this line and I pondered its half-dozen favorites for... some time.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:07 PM on July 19, 2019 [11 favorites]


That's why I felt so comfortable talking on the radio, the microphone converted my voice to electricity!

oneswellfoop, are you four eel?
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:58 PM on July 19, 2019 [6 favorites]


Glad to see the underutilized "bzzt-bzzt-motherfuckers" tag getting some action.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:00 PM on July 19, 2019 [16 favorites]


Something something eel-to-eel tape recorder.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:00 PM on July 19, 2019 [7 favorites]


This analogy only makes the electric eel weirder!

"That shock attack? It's analogous to if you YELLED LOUDLY at your prey to stun it."
posted by explosion at 9:50 PM on July 19, 2019 [4 favorites]




Back before the internet, we had to work really hard to know things about stuff.

Have a question? Make a note, remember to look it up (and good luck with that) the next time you went to the library.

I was well into adulthood before even learning about echolocation, and now my kids are like sure, bats, dolphins, blind bicyclists, big deal: echolocation.

But even now, and even with all the internet powers subsumed, my phone doesn't naturally have any awareness of the word echolocation, much less electrolocation.

This is so much why I love this site. Thank you for the revelatory post, sciatrix.
posted by hypersloth at 11:33 PM on July 19, 2019 [5 favorites]


Blind cyclists, right? Not deaf. I suspect a deaf cyclist would be terrible at echolocation.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:41 PM on July 19, 2019


Blind cyclists, right? Not deaf. I suspect a deaf cyclist would be terrible at echolocation.

Yes, it was a reference to this post. I corrected it in my edit window.

Please forgive, late Friday, Mooniversary.
posted by hypersloth at 11:49 PM on July 19, 2019


“You have to simultaneously co-evolve genes that do very many different things in some kind of directed manner. It [can't just] be random," says Maler. "And that's hard to understand. They've raised the problem beautifully in this paper."

He predicts that the findings, described in this week's issue of the journal Science, will be of great interest to evolutionary biologists.

And one dream is to use this new information to create an electric organ in a creature that doesn't normally have one, says Lindsay Traeger, a biologist who works in Sussman's lab.


Does it vibrate?
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:08 AM on July 20, 2019


explosion, allow me to introduce you to the pistol shrimp.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:08 AM on July 20, 2019 [2 favorites]



"You have to simultaneously co-evolve genes that do very many different things in some kind of directed manner. It [can't just] be random," says Maler. "And that's hard to understand. They've raised the problem beautifully in this paper."
Translation: I don't have a clue how the evolution of this feature happened, and I would like to express this in a way that will be helpful to the intelligent design crowd.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:32 AM on July 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


I mean, it really is this wild ridiculous thing. Electric organs are all either modified muscles building off neuro-muscular junctions to produce the electrical output or, in a few especially weird and specialized cases, modified nerve cells. It's hard to evolve the necessary changes in the structure of the neuron ion gateway channel (iirc - - I'm working from memory here) that lets you do that; there aren't many ways to achieve it, which is what that study actually teaches us. I don't know if anyone's gotten to making transgenic zebrafish expressing some of those modified ion channels and looking at the effects of some but not all mutations on the resulting cells, though - - what are these intermediate channels doing?

I should mention that one of the authors of that Science paper works in my department and actually served on my prelim committee, so I get a fair bit of electric fish work in our seminars. I have a not so secret fascination with them, which is why I perk up when they come up. (Actually the same is true of those snapping shrimp that CheeseDigestsAll mentioned - - they have some interesting social systems and some of the species keep evolving eusociality, like ants or naked mole rats. They're another bizarre system with a lot to teach us.)
posted by sciatrix at 8:34 PM on July 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


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