A shocking find: new high-voltage electric eels revealed

A picture released by Prof. Dr. Leandro Melo de Sousa on September 9, 2019 shows an electric eel (Electrophorus Voltai). Call it a shock discovery: DNA research has revealed two entirely new species of electric eel in the Amazon basin, including one capable of delivering a record-breaking jolt. (AFP)
Updated 11 September 2019

A shocking find: new high-voltage electric eels revealed

  • Electric eels use their shock tactics for a variety of reasons, including hunting prey, self-defense, and navigation
  • The newly discovered species may reveal a “hidden variety” of functions “of interest to the broader scientific community”

TOKYO: Call it a shock discovery: DNA research has revealed two entirely new species of electric eel in the Amazon basin, including one capable of delivering a record-breaking jolt.
The findings are evidence, researchers say, of the incredible diversity in the Amazon rainforest — much of it still unknown to science — and illustrate why it is so important to protect a habitat at risk from deforestation, logging and fires.
“In spite of all human impact on the Amazon rainforest in the last 50 years, we can still discover giant fishes like the two new species of electric eels,” said lead researcher C. David de Santana, a zoologist working with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The research “indicates that an enormous amount of species are waiting to be discovered in the Amazon rainforest, many of which may harbor cures for diseases or inspire technological innovations,” he told AFP.
The electric eel, in fact a kind of fish rather than an eel, inspired the design of the first electric battery.
For centuries, it was believed that a single species existed throughout the region known as Greater Amazonia, encompassing parts of countries including Brazil, Suriname and Guyana.
But as part of a project to better understand electric eels and map wildlife in remote parts of South America, de Santana and his team decided to test that conventional wisdom.
At first glance, they found little visible difference between creatures collected from different parts of the Amazon basin, suggesting the fish were indeed part of a single species.
But further analysis, including of DNA from 107 samples they collected, upended centuries of assumptions and revealed three different species: the previously known Electrophorus electricus, along with Electrophorus voltai and Electrophorus varii.
And their research also uncovered another stunning result: E. voltai is capable of delivering a jolt of 860 volts — much more than the 650 volts previously recorded from electric eels — “making it the strongest bioelectricity generator known.”

The findings, published Tuesday in the Nature Communications journal, theorize that the three species evolved from a shared ancestor millions of years ago.
The researchers found each of the three species has a clearly defined habitat, with E. electricus living in the Guiana Shield region, E. voltai in the Brazilian Shield, a highland further south, and E. varii inhabiting slow-flowing lowland Amazon basin waters.
And they suggest that the particularly strong electric shock that E. voltai can produce could be an adaptation to life in highland waters, where conductivity is less effective.
Electric eels use their shock tactics for a variety of reasons, including hunting prey, self-defense, and navigation.
They generate electricity from three specialized electric organs that can emit charges of varying strengths for different purposes.
But the discovery of the new species raises the possibility that different types of eels may have evolved different ways of generating electricity, perhaps better suited to their diverse environments.
De Santana hopes to compare the genomes of the three species, searching for clues that could offer insights useful to a variety of fields.
“Electric eel physiology inspired the design of Volta’s first electric battery, provided a basis... for treating neurodegenerative diseases and recently promoted the advance of hydrogel batteries that could be used to power medical implants,” he said.
The newly discovered species may reveal a “hidden variety” of functions “of interest to the broader scientific community.”


Solid gold toilet stolen from English stately home

Updated 14 September 2019

Solid gold toilet stolen from English stately home

  • Toilet was created by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan and estimated to be worth around £1 million
  • A 66-year-old man was arrested following the burglary at Blenheim Palace

LONDON: A gang of thieves on Saturday stole an 18-carat gold toilet from Britain’s Blenheim Palace, police said, causing flooding that damaged the world-famous stately home.
The fully-functioning toilet, dubbed “America,” was created by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan and estimated to be worth around £1 million.
A 66-year-old man was arrested following the burglary, which took place before dawn at the 18th-century estate near Oxford, southern England.
The toilet was one of the star attractions in an exhibition of Cattelan’s works that opened on Thursday at the palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visitors were able to book time slots to use it — but only for three minutes each, to limit the queues.
More than 100,000 people used the loo during the year it was on display at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
“The offenders broke into the palace overnight and left the scene at about 4.50am (0350 GMT). No-one was injured during the burglary,” police said in a statement.
Detective Inspector Jess Milne of Thames Valley Police said she believed “a group of offenders used at least two vehicles” — and left a mess behind them.
“The piece of art that has been stolen is a high-value toilet made out of gold that was on display at the palace,” she said.
“Due to the toilet being plumbed into the building, this has caused significant damage and flooding.”
Blenheim Palace said it was “saddened by this extraordinary event, but also relieved no-one was hurt.”
It closed on Saturday but said it would reopen on Sunday.

The palace is home to the 12th duke of Marlborough and his family, and was also the birthplace of British wartime leader Winston Churchill.
The duke’s brother, Edward Spencer-Churchill, who founded the Blenheim Art Foundation, said last month he was relaxed about security around the gold toilet.
“It’s not going to be the easiest thing to nick,” he told The Times newspaper.
“Firstly, it’s plumbed in and secondly, a potential thief will have no idea who last used the toilet or what they ate. So no, I don’t plan to be guarding it.”
He added: “Despite being born with a silver spoon in my mouth I have never had a shit on a golden toilet, so I look forward to it.”
Cattelan, who is known for his provocative art, has previously described the golden toilet as “one-percent art for the 99 percent.”
The Guggenheim had offered the loo on loan to US President Donald Trump, but he declined.
The Italian artist’s exhibition at Blenheim runs until October 27 and includes a taxidermied horse hoisted onto the ceiling of an ornate reception room.
Blenheim has previously hosted exhibitions of work by Ai WeiWei, Yves Klein, Jenny Holzer, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Lawrence Weiner.
Police said they were looking at CCTV footage to help them in the search for the gold toilet, adding that nothing else was believed to have been stolen.