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What are eels?

 A hand holds a fish net filled with clear eels each about one or two inches long.
Melody Bodette
Vermont Public
Volunteers count eels trapped in a tributary of the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York.

What are eels? And why are some eels electric? We head to Poughkeepsie, New York to learn about eels with Chris Bowser, Hudson River estuary educator with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Plus we learn about electric eels. Electric eels have captured the imagination of many people, but they’re not actually considered eels by the scientific community. They’re a type of knife fish, more closely related to catfish and carp. But they are electric! So we’ll tackle why they’re electric and how they create electricity. David de Santana, of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, tells us what it’s like to study electric eels in the Amazon.

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  • American eels can be found all over the east coast of North and South America, as far south as Venezuela and as far north as Greenland and northern Quebec. European eels are very similar and can be found all over the eastern coast of that continent.
  • Researchers think American eels hatch in the Sargasso sea between Bermuda and Puerto Rico. After hatching, baby eels travel thousands of miles to fresh water rivers and creeks where they grow up. Eventually, as many as 25 years later, they return to the ocean to spawn (make new baby eels) and die.
  • Eels are catadromous, meaning they are able to move from salt water to fresh water. Most fish can only survive in one of those environments.
  • Eels are fish. They have gills, fins and scales.
  • Eels are a bit of a mystery. Researchers don’t know exactly where they spawn or what makes them swim to certain creeks after they’re born. 
  • Eels can grow 2-3 feet long.
  • Eels have been threatened by fishing, pollution and dams. Researchers are trying to understand more about eels so that they can help conserve them. 
  • Electric eels are not actually eels, they are knifefish. Researchers recently discovered there are 3 species of electric eel and they can produce varying amounts of electricity.
  • Electric eels can produce charges seven times stronger than a wall socket. Electric eels produce electricity using three organs. They use that electricity to navigate rivers, to communicate with other electric eels and to defend themselves to avoid being eaten.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.

But Why is a project of Vermont Public.

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