Scientists have discovered two new species of electric eel in the Amazon basin, one of which generates more electricity than any other living creature on Earth.
Testing the centuries-old theory that only one species of electric eel exists in the Greater Amazonia region, Carlos David de Santana and his team of researchers first found few differences between creatures collected from different parts of the basin, suggesting they were part of a single species, Electrophorus electricus.
However, further analysis, including DNA samples from 107 new specimens, identified two additional species: Electrophorus voltai and Electrophorus varii.
The former was found to be capable of delivering jolts of up to 860 volts, “making it the strongest bioelectricity generator known”, the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, said. Electric eels were previously thought to deliver jolts of up to 650 volts.
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Santana, a zoologist working with Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and his team theorise that the three species evolved from a common ancestor a million years ago, adapting to different environments.
The findings show, the researchers said, that even widespread conspicuous species (the eels can reach more than two metres in length) can go undetected in “Earth’s biodiversity hotspots”.
Speaking to The Guardian, Santana said the research “indicates that an enormous amount of species are waiting to be discovered in the Amazon rainforest, many of which may harbour cures for diseases or inspire technological innovations”.
The researchers found that the three species had different habitats, with E. elecrtricus living in the Guinea Shield region, E. voltai in the Brazilian Shield further south and E. vari residing in slow-flowing lowland basin waters.
E. voltai’s particularly high-voltage shock could be an adaptation to living in highland waters with reduced conductivity, they said.
Electric eels inspired the design of Volta’s first electric battery and produce a substance used to treat neurodegenerative disease, the study said. Their physiology has recently “encouraged the development of… a hydrogel battery that could be used to power medical implants,” it added.