Miguel Wattson, an electric eel that lives at the Tennessee Aquarium, is a multitasker. He eats. He tweets (more on that later).
And for his most effortless trick this season, he lights up a Christmas tree.
The electric eel’s curious talents have drawn crowds to the Chattanooga aquarium this week after engineers and aquarium workers have found a way to harness Wattson’s natural electricity to flicker the lights on the tree. Workers installed sensors in Wattson’s tank. Every time Wattson spews voltage, the sensors transmit the charge to a light-and-sound system hooked up to the tree, as the aquarium’s audio visual production specialist, Joey Turnipseed, explained in a statement Tuesday. It’s almost like lightning and thunder: The soundboard also converts Wattson’s jolts into loud kabooms, for the full effect.
As for Wattson, all he has to do is exist — and eat.
“The rapid, dim blinking of the lights is caused by the constant, low-voltage blips of electricity he releases when he’s trying to find food,” said Kimberly Hurt, an aquarium employee. “The bigger flashes are caused by the higher voltage shocks he emits when he’s eating or excited.”
Electric eels (which are actually knifefish, not eels) can elicit deadly zaps if they get worked up enough. While resting or navigating casually, the Electrophorus electricus may only discharge about 10 volts, but can discharge more than 800 volts — greater than a household wall socket — if they get angry or excited enough, typically when the staff drops in food, according to the aquarium. Electric eels living in the Amazon use their electricity to shock their prey into submission in dark, murky waters, which is why feeding time can be such a thrill.
“When we drop pieces of food in, Miguel gets really excited and he goes with those high-voltage shocks after the food items trying to stun them,” Hurt told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “We’re feeding him frozen food, but he still does get really excited.”
Wattson is not the first electric eel to power a Christmas tree; several aquariums have done it during the past decade. But he may very well be the first eel to power his own Twitter account.
Using largely the same mechanism powering the lights, every time Wattson discharges a large enough jolt, the sensors transmit it to a “fuse box” synced with a computer program, which is designed to automatically send out tweets from Wattson’s account. Because he could spend all day tweeting if he wanted, the computer system requires him to discharge huge voltage to trigger a tweet. “Ironically, the eel code was written in Python,” Evgeny Vasilyev, a computer science intern at Tennessee Tech University, which designed the trick, said in 2015.
To his more than 37,000 followers, Wattson typically tweets just sound effects.
The phenomenon of harnessing electric eels’ naturally produced electricity has existed for decades. But in the mid-2000s, an aquarium in Japan claimed to be the first to pull the Christmas tree trick, garnering worldwide interest.
At the Enoshima Aquarium, Kazuhiko Minawa pitched the idea as an eco-friendly alternative to sucking up electricity for the Christmas tree the conventional way. In his exhibit, he installed two aluminum panels as electrodes in the eel’s tank that would absorb enough electricity to illuminate the six-foot-six tree, according to Reuters.
“If we could gather all electric eels from all around the world, we would be able to light up an unimaginably giant Christmas tree,” Minawa told Reuters in 2007.
Aquariums in North America followed suit. In 2012, for example, Smithsonian magazine featured an electric eel named Sparky that was powering the Christmas tree at the Living Planet Aquarium in Sandy, Utah. Bill Carnell, an electrician at Salt Lake City-based Cache Valley Electric, had been inspired to try it out after encountering a 1954 video about an electric eel named Joe — which somehow made it onto YouTube. It was filmed by the Moody Institute of Science, demonstrating how, just like with Wattson decades later, you could insert electrodes into the tank, hook them up to loud speakers, and then actually hear the electric eel’s steady jolts. The scientist made a similar demonstration with lights.
And then — forgive us — the lightbulb went off for Carnell: Why not hook up the electrodes to a Christmas tree? he thought, as Smithsonian reported. Partnering with the Living Planet Aquarium, he inserted the stainless steel electrodes into Sparky’s tank, linked up to a power sequencer, Smithsonian reported. And the tree lights began to flicker, Smithsonian reported.
“Researchers looking to the future are trying to find ways to generate electricity through some kind of a biological process, rather than combustion or some mechanical energy,” Carnell told the magazine. “When you get into the science of the eel and you find that its body is constructed of all these little tiny batteries, of sorts, that are powered biologically, that is where the real interest is.”
University scientists from the United States and Switzerland, for example, have studied how to replicate eels’ generation of electricity for use in devices such as pacemakers. Some have called it a “biological battery,” or an “artificial electric organ,” mimicking the electric eel’s physiology, as the scientists explained in a 2017 paper published in Nature.
Some have even wondered whether electric eels could be used to charge a Tesla in the same way they deliver volts to a Christmas tree. Jalopnik, an online outlet that writes about cars, decided to research it in August and concluded: “Maybe. But not really.”
Miguel Wattson apparently would not be pleased with that anyway.
“The problem with being an electric eel these days is the constant requests to recharge people’s phones,” Wattson’s account showed on Oct. 20. “I have better things to do, people!”
Video: Vanderbilt University professor Kenneth Catania explains how electric eels use their high-voltage charges to do more than simply disable their prey. (The Washington Post/Vanderbilt University)