An Electric Eel Is Controlling the Lights on This Tennessee Christmas Tree
A Christmas tree at the Tennessee Aquarium has a shocking secret: its lights are triggered by the charges released by an electric eel.
The eel, Miguel Wattson, is already a star on Twitter, according to the Associated Press, and coders at Tennessee Tech University's iCube center figured out how to translate his shocks into tweets like "SHAZAM!!!!" and "ka-BLAMEROO!!!!!"
This Monday, though, he tweeted something else. A video of his electricity making the lights on a tree near his tank flicker on and off.
ICYMI, here's a video of yours truly attempting to use my discharges to power the lights on a Christmas tree. (SPOI… https://t.co/aMeeUlken1— Miguel Wattson TNAQ (@Miguel Wattson TNAQ)1575321776.0
Miguel doesn't directly power the tree, the eel's caretaker Kimberly Hurt told NPR.
"There is a sensor directly in his exhibit that picks up when he produces electricity," Hurt explained.
That sensor then "translat[es] when he's producing electricity to the lights."
The brightness of the lights varies based on what kind of shock Miquel produces. Electric eels produce high voltage shocks of up to 800 volts when they are stunning prey or trying to defend themselves. That means the tree is brightest when Miguel is eating.
Otherwise, eels produce shocks of around 10 volts in order to navigate and find prey despite their poor eyesight and the murky waters where they live, according to the aquarium.
During the rest of the year, the sensors in Miguel's tank are hooked up to an amplifier and LED meter to let visitors know when he is sparking. It wasn't difficult to hook the sensors up to a tree instead, and Hurt says they will bring the display back in future years.
"We want people to be interested in these animals and interested in protecting the waters that they live in," Hurt told NPR.
Electric eels aren't really eels. They are actually a kind of knifefish that live in the freshwater ponds and streams of the Amazon and Orinoco basins in South America, according to National Geographic. A study published in September revealed that what scientists thought was one species of electric eel is actually three, highlighting the extensive biodiversity of the Amazon region.
The fish can grow to be more than eight feet and 44 pounds, according to National Geographic. It is rare that their shocks kill humans, but they have the capacity to: multiple shocks can cause respiratory or heart failure. Miguel's keepers wear gloves to keep themselves safe, the aquarium says.
The Tennessee Aquarium isn't the first to bring the Christmas spirit to their electric eel display. The Living Planet Aquarium in Utah had a similar display in 2012, according to The Smithsonian. And an eel in Japan lit up a Christmas tree in 2015, according to Today.
Bill Carnell, a Salt Lake City electrician who set up the Utah display, says that the attention electric eels generate can help raise awareness about alternative means of producing electricity.
"Researchers looking to the future are trying to find ways to generate electricity through some kind of a biological process, rather than combustion or some mechanical energy. When you get into the science of the eel and you find that its body is constructed of all these little tiny batteries, of sorts, that are powered biologically, that is where the real interest is," Carnell told The Smithsonian.
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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