TOKYO, September 11 – Let's call it a shock discovery: DNA research has discovered two completely new types of Electroaal in the Amazon basin, including one that can deliver a record burst.
According to the researchers, the findings prove the incredible diversity of the Amazon rainforest – much of it is still unknown to scientists – and illustrate why protecting an endangered habitat from deforestation, logging and fires is so important.
"Despite all the human impacts on the Amazon rainforest over the past 50 years, we can still spot giant fish like the two new types of electric eels," said senior researcher C. David de Santana, a zoologist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The research "shows that a tremendous amount of species are waiting to be discovered in the Amazon rainforest, many of which can be cures for diseases or stimulate technological innovation." he told AFP.
The electric eel, in fact a species of fish and not an eel, inspired the design of the first electric battery.
For centuries, it was believed that there was one single species in the entire region known as the Greater Amazonia, which includes parts of countries such as Brazil, Suriname and Guyana.
As part of a project to better understand eels and map wildlife in remote parts of South America, de Santana and his team decided to test this conventional wisdom.
At first glance, they found barely visible differences between creatures that come from different parts of the Amazon Basin, suggesting that the fish actually belong to a single species.
Centuries of conjecture turned upside down and three different species revealed: the previously known Electrophorus electricus, along with Electrophorus voltai and Electrophorus varii.
And their research also uncovered Another amazing result: E. Voltai can deliver a jolt of 860 volts – much more than the 650 volts previously recorded by electric eels – making it the "strongest known bioelectricity generator".
The results, which were published yesterday in the journal Nature Communications state that the three species formed millions of years ago from a common ancestor have clearly defined habitat, with E. electricus occurring in the Guyana Shield area, E. voltai in the Brazilian Shield, a highland further south, and E. varii in the slow-flowing lowland of the Amazon basin.
A strong electric shock that E. Voltai can trigger 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 making hu prey, defending themselves, and navigating.
They generate electricity from three specialized electrical organs that can deliver charges of different strengths for different purposes.
The discovery of the new species, however, increases the likelihood of different types of eels. De Santana may have developed different types of power generation that may be better suited to their different environments.
De Santana hopes to be able to compare the genomes of the three species in order to look for clues that could provide useful insights for a variety of areas.
The physiology of the electric eel inspired the design of Volta's first electric battery, provided a foundation for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, and recently promoted the advancement of hydrogel batteries that power medical implants.
The newly discovered species may reveal a "hidden variety" of functions that are "of interest to the broader scientific community." – AFP