This Electric Eel Is Shocking Around the Christmas Tree

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The Tennessee Aquarium’s internet-famous eel, Miguel Wattson, is powering Christmas lights in the exhibit.

By Jason Daley, Smithsonian.Com

Stringing up holiday lights may add a few dollars to the December power bill, but the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga isn’t concerned. An electric eel named Miguel Wattson is powering the lights on its Christmas tree.

The eel-powered holiday cheer is part of the Aquarium’s annual Christmas celebration. As part of the festivities, the audio-visual department rigged up a system to Miguel’s tank in the Rivers of the World gallery that allows his occasional shocks to turn on the lights. The project is called “Shocking Around the Christmas Tree.”

“Whenever Miguel discharges electricity, sensors in the water deliver the charge to a set of speakers,” says Joey Turnipseed, the aquarium’s audio-visual specialist, in a press release. “The speakers convert the discharge into the sound you hear and the festively flashing lights.”

Miguel’s electric current is pretty sporadic and the lights dim on and an off depending on what activity he’s engaged in. “The rapid, dim blinking of the lights is caused by the constant, low-voltage blips of electricity he releases when he’s trying to find food,” aquarist Kimberly Hurt says in the release. “The bigger flashes are caused by the higher voltage shocks he emits when he’s eating or excited.”

Merrit Kennedy at NPR reports that Miguel’s current is not directly powering the lights. The sensors in his tank send jolts of electricity to the lights when they detect his electrical currents in the water. While eels produce about 10 volts of electricity when communicating with other eels or exploring their surroundings, the creatures can produce shocks up to 800 volts when stunning prey or warding off predators. A standard wall outlet in the United States is 120 volts.

Because many people will not be in Chattanooga for the holidays, the Aquarium has also connected the system to Miguel’s Twitter account. When his zaps exceed a certain threshold, the account tweets out charged words like “BAZAMM!!!!!” and “za-BOOSH!!!!”

Miguel is not the first eel to spread a little holiday energy. In 2012, an eel in an aquarium in Utah performed a similar trick and another eel in Japan lit up some holiday lights in 2015. The Tennessee Aquarium, however, hopes to make Miguel’s electric Christmas magic an annual tradition.

While the trick is cool, Hurt tells Kennedy that they hope people’s love for Miguel will translate into an appreciation for the incredible animal’s natural habitat. “We want people to be interested in these animals and interested in protecting the waters that they live in,” she says.

If this yuletide tradition is sparking your interest in electric eels, here are a few more fun facts about them:

  • Electric eels are actually not eels at all, but freshwater knifefish that live in slow moving lakes, streams and flooded forests across South America.
  • The animals can reach up to eight feet in length, and most of their body is filled with specialized organs that produce its zapping power.
  • In September, a study in the journal Nature Communications concluded that the electric eel should be divided into three separate species. Not only were there genetic difference between the species, the animals were divided by the voltage they can produce, with one species capable of producing 860 volts. While that sounds high, the researchers point out that the amperage is fairly low, meaning that even if an electric eel hits a human with a full-power jolt, it’s not particularly dangerous.

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