New studies in neurobiology at Vanderbilt University have revealed that electric eels curl up to concentrate an electric field before striking out against their prey.
The research, headed by Kenneth Catania of Vanderbilt University, has subverted traditional thinking pertaining to the way eels work. The curling up of eels during their attacks has been observed before, though until now it hasn’t been clear, according to Forbes.
Catania’s study of this behavior showed in 2014 that high-frequency bursts of energy from the eel’s body activate motor neurons which trigger full-body muscle contractions in its prey. This strategy serves to immobilize food or potential attackers.
The act of curling boosts the eel’s electric field, leading to more more effective immobilization of their prey. When they struggle to hard to escape, they suffer crippling muscle fatigue. As a result, the prey becomes completely paralyzed.
The study has also found that, once their prey has been immobilized, eels curl themselves around their prey. This sandwiches the prey between the eel’s head and tail. This situates the prey between the positive and negative poles of the eel’s electric field.
Through measurements using electrodes in dummy prey during experiments, Catania has concluded that the act of curling at least doubles the strength of the eel’s shocks.
The eel’s electric fields help them to navigate the Amazon’s muddy rivers, allowing them to find food. Catania’s research has also revealed that they use the electric fields as a means of tracking fast-moving prey in a technique similar to radar.
The eel’s use of electric fields also allows the predator to remote-control their targets. In the same way that the electric fields are used to create muscle spasms and contractions in the eels prey, the fields can also be used to make subtle manipulations in the muscles of its prey. This allows the eel to manipulate its prey into moving in the direction that is most advantageous.