Electric eels can power Christmas tree lights — and science

Twitter user Miguel Wattson, an electric eel, is bringing the holiday spirit.

Christmas tree light illustration

Sure, there’s Elf on the Shelf, but what has more holiday spirit than an eel in a tank?

At least, one specific eel, anyway. Miguel Wattson, an electric eel living at Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, is bringing some Christmas magic to visitors. The aquarium hooked Miguel up to a string of Christmas tree lights so that whenever he generates an electric pulse, the tree lights up.

You can see Miguel in action in a video posted by the aquarium.

If you’re wondering how exactly that works, there’s an important caveat: It’s not actually Miguel powering the tree. At least, not directly. Rather, scientists use a sensor to measure whenever the slick fish lets off an electric pulse. Those jolts trigger a system that lights up the tree accordingly, in sync with Miguel’s activity.

It’s not only Christmas magic that Miguel can “communicate” in this way. Miguel has wowed fans for years with his sparky energy through lights and a sound board at the aquarium, enabling visitors to see and hear his electricity. He even has a Twitter — @EelectricMiguel — his pulses trigger onomatopoeic messages like “ZWUMP!!!!” and “BAZAMM!!!!” and “ZWOP!!!!!!”

However they’re represented, an electric eel’s pulses vary in strength, and they can mean different things, according to a July 2019 study.

Electric eels can deliver shocks powerful enough to stun a human -- or light a Christmas tree.
Electric eels can deliver shocks powerful enough to stun a human — or light a Christmas tree.

Bigger pulses could suggest Miguel is excited or eating, while smaller ones may indicate he’s searching for food or navigating his tank, AP reports.

“You can see a difference between those two on the tree,” Kimberly Hurt, an aquarist and one of Miguel’s caretakers, told NPR. The low voltage pulses show up as the “gentle blinking” of Christmas lights, and those with higher voltage give way to brighter flashes.

Eel-inspired power

While Miguel’s main superpower seems to be wowing crowds of visitors, these sparky eels have contributed to science in some curious ways.

Researchers at the University of Michigan drew inspiration from nature to create a new “body-friendly” power source — an artificial electric organ. They describe their “electric-eel-inspired power concept” in a study published in 2017 in Nature.

The invention is a flexible and transparent battery that can be powered with a saltwater solution. The researchers plan to tweak the device so that it can run on humans’ body fluids. Then, it could be implanted in humans, offering an alternative power source for devices like health monitors and medication dispensers.

Like an electric eel, the device works by moving ions across a selective membrane to produce power, the researchers say. As they continue to improve upon their model, the researchers are still taking notes from eels and their internal power systems.

Turning hunting into health

In truth, eels’ electricity has a darker purpose.

Electric eels use mild electric pulses to track prey — they then stun the target with intense jolts. They also use electricity to ward off predators. With about 6,000 specialized cells, they’re able to generate the power to do this, reports National Geographic.

Humans don’t need to worry too much. Death by electric eel is extremely rare. But these shocks are nothing to shrug at — they can stun humans and cause people to drown.

Electric eels can even jump out of the water to attack their prey, as Inverse has previously reported. In a gnarly video, Vanderbilt University biologist Ken Catania confirmed that fact using a rather unlikely subject: his own arm. Badass. Happy holidays y’all.