By overwhelming the nerves that control the muscles in the target's body, the Taser works. This causes the muscles to involuntarily contract.
To determine if the eel's electrical discharge had the same effect, Catania walled off part of the aquarium with an electrically permeable barrier. He placed a pithed fish on other side of the barrier from the eel and then fed the eel some earthworms, which triggered its electrical volleys. The volleys that passed through the barrier and struck the fish produced strong muscle contractions.
AdvertisementTo determine whether the discharges were acting on the prey's motor neurons - the nerves that control the muscles - or on the muscles themselves, he placed two pithed fish behind the barrier: one injected with saline solution and other injected with curare, a paralytic agent that targets the nervous system. The muscles of the fish with the saline continued to contract in response to the eel's electrical discharges but the muscle contractions in the fish given the curare disappeared as the drug took effect. This demonstrated that the eel's electrical discharges were acting through the motor neurons just like Taser discharges.
Next Catania turned his attention to the way in which the eel uses electrical signals for hunting. The eel is nocturnal and doesn't have very good eyesight. So it needs other ways to detect hidden prey.
The biologist determined that the closely space doublets and triplets that the eel emits correspond to the electric signal that motor neurons send to muscles to produce an extremely rapid contraction.
"Normally, you or I or any other animal can't cause all of the muscles in our body to contract at the same time. However, that is just what the eel can cause with this signal," Catania said.
Putting together the fact that the eels are extremely sensitive to water movements with the fact that the whole-body muscle contraction causes the prey's body to twitch, creating water movements that the eel can sense, Catania concluded that the eel is using these signals to locate hidden prey.
To test this hypothesis, Catania connected a pithed fish to a stimulator.. He put the fish in a clear plastic bag to protect it from the eel's emissions. He found that when he stimulated the fish to twitch right after the eel emitted one of its signals, the eel would attack. But, when the fish failed to respond to its signal, the eel did not attack. The result supports the idea that the eel uses its electroshock system to force its prey to reveal their location.
"If you take a step back and think about it, what the eel can do is extremely remarkable," said Catania. "It can use its electrical system to take remote control of its prey's body. If a fish is hiding nearby, the eel can force it to twitch, giving away its location, and if the eel is ready to capture a fish, it can paralyze it so it can't escape."