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An electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) is a type of fish native to South America. Many people are familiar with the electric eel, thanks to its unique ability to produce large amounts of electricity, primarily used in hunting. Despite their shocking reputations, electric eels are actually quite gentle fish, and some biologists have even described them as friendly. Unfortunately, the fish can discharge electricity very easily, so they need to be handled with rubber gloves and extreme care.
Technically, the electric eel is a knifefish, not an eel. Electric eels lack several major characteristics which are associated with eels, leading to their classification in different orders. Like other knifefish, the electric eel has specialized internal organs which can generate electricity. The fish is also entirely freshwater dwelling, and is considered to be one of the leading predators of South American rivers.
The common name for the fish comes from the superficial resemblance it has to eels. The body of an electric eel is long and dark, much like that of a true eel. The fish can grow up to nine feet (almost three meters) long, and are capable of generating up to 700 volts of electricity. The shock of the electrical discharge is used to stun prey. The fish also have a superb sense of hearing, which they may use to help them locate prey.
The diet of the electric eel consists primarily of other fish, although they have also been known to eat amphibians and small mammals which have strayed into their territory. Young electric eels eat bottom dwelling insects and small fish until they are old enough to hunt larger prey. The electric eel is also unusual among fish species in that it gets most of its oxygen through direct breathing. The fish surface every 10 minutes or so to take large gulps of air, which supply as much as 80% of their oxygen.
Because electric eels are capable of generating formidable electrical charges, they are considered dangerous. Home fish enthusiasts should not keep electric eels, because the risk is too great. Scientists use the fish in some research, handling them with respect and caution. Some aquariums also keep electric eels, and their handlers are carefully trained to avoid accidents. In some regions, the fish are banned, because of concerns about their escape into the wild. In a fragile environment, the electric eel could quickly become a dominant species, putting native fish at risk.