Saturday, December 18, 2010

Here's a Shocker: An Electric Eel versus an Alligator? Actually, a Caiman.

            A video of something that looks like an alligator attacking an electric eel has been recently pulsing through the worldwide web like the shockwaves of…well, an electric eel.   Although several sources identify the reptile as an alligator, this isn’t actually the case.  There are two species of alligators in the world, the American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, and the Chinese Alligator, Alligator sinensis.  The American Alligator is native to the southeastern United States and the Chinese Alligator is native to, you guessed it, China.

            Our first clue that the giant reptile in the video isn’t an alligator is the man is speaking Portuguese.  Since there are no crocodilians (the group of animals that includes both crocodiles and alligators) in Europe, we can rule out Portugal as the location.  That leaves Brazil in South America and a few African nations, which speak Portuguese because of the early colonial influence of Portugal.  There are crocodilians in both of these continents so we can proceed no further along this line of investigation. 

            There are two lines of reasoning that lead us to South America (and therefore Brazil).  First, on several occasions the man mentions a jacaré, which refers to a caiman (most accurately the Yacare Caiman, Caiman yacare).

There are about six different species of caiman, and they are in the same family as alligators (Alligatoridae).  Characterizing relationships among crocodilians can be confusing.  There are two primary families: Alligatoridae, which includes alligators and caiman, and Crocodylidae, which includes just about everything else (except for the Gharial, in the Gavialidae family).  All of these animals are in the Order Crocodilia.  So, an animal (like a caiman) could be in the Alligatoridae family but not really be an alligator and an alligator could be in the Order Crocodilia but not really be a crocodile.  But in any case, the confusion just relates to our system of characterizing these groups of animals and the names we’ve chosen for them.

Back to the subject at hand: caiman can only be found in Central and South America.  And the second way we know where this video was filmed is that Electric Eels can only be found in South America and the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese is Brazil.  So there we go.

It looks as though the Electric Eel, Electrophorus electricus, is caught on some fishing line, and it’s no surprise the fisherman in the video wasn’t rushing to release it.   As advertised, these eels (which aren’t technically eels at all!) can be dangerous.  They produce electricity primarily to shock and stun their prey but their unique talent is also useful for self-defense.  Electric eels can produce shocks upwards of 500 volts (and one ampere), which is sufficient to kill a person. 

The thrashing Electric Eel likely attracted the hungry caiman (which love to eat fish, including piranhas), and the resulting encounter appears to be fatal to both.  I can’t fault the caiman for going after seafood; I fondly remember an incredible fish dinner I had on the banks of the Amazon River when I was in Manaus, Brazil, about ten years ago.  We were served platter after platter of exotic aquatic creatures, and one of the courses included piranha soup (I recommend washing it down with a caipirinha or two). I don't believe Electric Eel was on the menu.  But I digress.

Although the video has attracted a lot of controversy, I don’t think the fisherman meant for this to happen.  Rather, it seems to be the unfortunate consequence of not knowing how to react when confronted by a couple of dangerous animals.

1 comment:

Joy K. said...

Great sleuthing with the identification.

Your post is part of the House of Herps festival for January. You can drop by the carnival at The Little House in the Not-So-Big Woods.