Insight & Analysis

A rEELy shocking Christmas tree

Published: Dec 2019

Tennessee Aquarium’s resident electric eel, Miguel Wattson, is putting on quite the light show this holiday season.

Sea electric eel at an aquarium

The Aquarium, located in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has dubbed the project “Shocking Around the Christmas Tree” and hooked up Miguel’s tank to sensors that measure the strength of his electric discharges to the lights on a Christmas tree next to the tank. The glow of the lights is set to correspond with the strength of the electricity he creates, and so the result can vary dramatically.

“Whenever Miguel discharges electricity, sensors in the water deliver the charge to a set of speakers,” Joey Turnipseed, the aquarium’s audio visual production specialist, explained in a press release. “The speakers convert the discharge into the sound you hear and the festively flashing lights.”

Aquarist Kimberly Hurt who cares for Miguel explained that when the lights are flashing rapidly but dimly, he is emitting low-voltage bolts of electricity. When bigger flashes are seen, it’s caused by the higher voltage shocks he releases, normally at mealtimes. Electric eel shocks can peak at about 800 volts, but the smaller shocks are only about 10 volts.

Miguel also has his own popular Twitter account, which he posts to himself with a similar system. Sensors measure the voltage of his shocks, and once they hit a certain threshold a tweet is sent from his account, normally of an onomatopoeic word relating to electricity; “THWIP!”, “SNIKT!”, “SPA-KOW!”.

Hurt says the display aims to get people excited about the species. “We want people to be interested in these animals and interested in protecting the waters that they live in,” she says.

This isn’t the first time an electric eel demonstration has been displayed in aquariums either. The Living Planet Aquarium in Sandy, Utah had a similar set-up in 2012 that used steel electrodes on each side of the eel’s tank that collected the voltage emitted to power a sequencer that then operated the lights based on the level of voltage.

A novEEL way of EELuminating a tree, and spreading some holiday cheer!

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