Noeel: Electric Eel Lights Up Christmas Tree In Tennessee

Dec 4, 2019
Originally published on December 5, 2019 6:36 pm

An electric eel in Chattanooga, Tenn., is sparking a little holiday cheer.

Every time Miguel Wattson the electric eel releases a jolt of electricity, a festively-decorated Christmas tree next to his tank at the Tennessee Aquarium flickers and glows.

"There is a sensor directly in his exhibit that picks up when he produces electricity," Aquarist Kimberly Hurt, who cares for the electric eel, tells NPR.

The aquarium had already connected the sensor to a soundboard and a light board to correspond with Wattson's bursts, says Hurt. "It'll light up the board. It also does make some noise so people can hear when he's producing electricity."

So it wasn't a huge leap to also have Wattson's sensors connected to a Christmas tree, for a seasonal spin on the display.

Take a look at the electric eel in action:

Tennessee Aquarium / YouTube

We should clarify that the electricity produced by the eel is not literally powering the lights on the tree – the sensors and other equipment are "translating when he's producing electricity to the lights," Hurt says.

You might notice that the tree sometimes emits small flickers of light, and at other times puts out stronger, brighter bursts. Hurt says these correspond with different kinds of electric eel shocks, which can peak at about 800 volts.

An electric eel will emit high-voltage shocks in situations like "self-defense, or trying to stun a possible food item or a prey item," Hurt adds. So, the tree is the brightest at Wattson's meal times.

She says the smaller flickers are used to communicate with other eels or help detect their surroundings. These smaller jolts are only about 10 volts, according to the aquarium.

This isn't the first time the aquarium has made creative use out of Wattson's bursts of electricity. The fish has had a Twitter account since 2014 (@EelectricMiguel) which puts out prewritten tweets whenever the probes in his tank detect a jolt of power above a trigger threshold. The account has attracted some 30,000 followers.

Many of the tweets triggered by Wattson are, appropriately, electric-sounding, like "ZIPPITY-ZAPPITY-ZOOP!!!" or "CRACKLE!!!!!" Some are a little sassier: "The problem with being an electric eel these days is the constant requests to recharge people's phones. I have better things to do, people!"

The Tennessee Aquarium is planning to bring back the electric eel tree-lighting exhibit in future years. It's worth noting that several other aquariums have put up electric eel demonstrations like this for Christmas, too.

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

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In Chattanooga, an electric eel is sparking a little holiday cheer. NPR's Merrit Kennedy reports that the Tennessee Aquarium is making festive use of the animal's jolts of electricity.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: This electric eel's name is Miguel Wattson. And every once in a while, he sends out a blast of electricity into the water around him. Those bursts make the lights of a festive Christmas tree next to his tank flicker and glow.

KIMBERLY HURT: Any time that they flash or blink, that is because the eel is producing electricity.

KENNEDY: Kimberly Hurt takes care of Wattson.

HURT: This is our first year doing the Christmas tree, and it seems like a hit so far.

KENNEDY: She says the animal puts out two different kinds of electric pulses. The bigger ones are when he gets excited about food; the smaller ones are for communicating or even navigating around the tank.

HURT: You can see a difference between those two on the tree. The low voltage are kind of the gentle blinking of the lights, and the high voltage are more of a very distinct, bright flash of the lights.

KENNEDY: So Wattson puts on the tree's flashiest displays around mealtime. And we should probably say that it's not literally the eel's electricity that's lighting the tree. When the sensors detect a jolt, it triggers the tree to light up in sync with it. Visitors to the aquarium can also hear the bigger bursts.



KENNEDY: Electric eels can produce up to 800 volts of power, and this isn't the first time the aquarium has made creative use of Wattson's shocking talents. In fact, the fish has had his own Twitter account for the past five years. The @EelectricMiguel account puts out pre-written tweets whenever the probes in his tank detect a big burst of power.

HURT: It's usually onomatopoeias - bang, boom, pop. Sometimes we get selfies or puns or news articles off of Miguel's Twitter as well.

KENNEDY: Hurt says this is the start of a new holiday tradition at the Tennessee Aquarium. She says the Christmas tree display is aimed at getting people excited about the species there and interested in protecting the waters where they live.

Merrit Kennedy, NPR News.

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