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Top 5 Strange Facts About Eels

Jana loves compiling and sharing lists about the natural world, science, and history.

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1. The Loch Ness Eel

Nessie needs no introduction. Alright, maybe the monster needs a quick hello. This creature is said to inhabit Loch Ness in Scotland. It's been described as a very large cryptid with a long neck—think aquatic giraffe—and some witnesses have reported flippers like a marine mammal. Many people believe that Nessie is a unique species, a paranormal phenomenon or a surviving population of plesiosaurs from prehistoric times.

But an eel? As bizarre as that sounds, there might be a chance. At least, that's the conclusion of a 2019 study that involved an international effort to take DNA samples from Loch Ness. Here's what they found.

The DNA Results

  • 3 types of amphibians
  • 11 species of fish
  • 19 mammals
  • 22 birds
  • Humans
  • Countless micro-organisms
  • Eels in every water sample
  • No DNA from plesiosaurs or other unexplained biological hosts (Oh darn...)

The Eel Theory

The possibility that the Loch Ness monster might be a giant eel was considered as far back as 1933. The locals already knew that the Loch teemed with eels and the DNA tests proved it. Indeed, some of the eels are unusually large. However, the largest species was identified as the European eel and these creatures aren't big enough to account for Nessie's size. Not unless the vast size of the Loch allows them to grow bigger than their normal 1.5 meters (4 feet, 11 inches).

The scientists admitted that DNA degrades quickly and that they could have missed the full spectrum of creatures living in the Loch. What does that mean? There's hope, monster fans. Nessie the plesiosaur-thingy might still be out there.

2. Seals Snort Them

A few years ago, scientist Charles Littnan received an email. It set him on a brave quest that, unlike the movies, never came to a satisfying close. Littnan, fellow scholars and veterinarians are still dumbstruck about why seals snort eels.

Every now and again, a seal would be found with an eel stuck up its nose. This always happened on a remote northwestern Hawaiian island. The species was always a juvenile Hawaiian monk seal. All the eels were also very long and very dead. None of the seals appeared stressed about their hood ornaments, either.

These seals remain rare. Scientists are worried that dead eels stuck in their nostrils could cause health issues.

These seals remain rare. Scientists are worried that dead eels stuck in their nostrils could cause health issues.

The Official Response

The email's subject line just read “Eel in nose” and the person looking for advice wanted to know if there was a protocol to deal with this kind of situation. Littnan made some calls and fired off his own emails to experts to find an answer. As he discovered, there was no official protocol for eel snorting. Littnan and his colleagues went back to the basics—they simply pulled the two species apart.

When seals dive underwater, their muscular nostrils close automatically. There's little chance of an eel wriggling itself into a seal's snoot and then go deep enough to get itself stuck. Seals often throw up but Littnan couldn't imagine that the fat eels would come up from the stomach and shoot out the nose, a difficult exit under the best of circumstances. Watch this space.

3. They Get High on Cocaine

The European eel lives in waterways but when it is breeding season, they head for the ocean. After creating the next generation, the adults die and their kids return to the waterways. Unfortunately, artificial dams and pollution are mowing their numbers down like reapers. Not so fun fact: the species is critically endangered.

Recent studies have shown a new danger—cocaine is increasingly entering Europe's waterways.

The European eel.

The European eel.

The Physical Effects

In 2018, the University of Naples wanted to know exactly how the drug affected the eels. The analysis found a disheartening set of problems.

  • Hyperactivity
  • Traces of cocaine in the brain, gills, and muscles
  • Swelling and disintegrating muscle tissue

Needless to say, this could interfere with the eels' endurance when they go on their 6,000 kilometre (3,728 mile) trek to the ocean.

4. The Oldest Eel Lived in a Well

In 1859, Samuel Nilsson threw an eel down a well. The 8-year-old boy wasn't being cruel. This was once a common practice in Sweden and it benefited the household and the eel. During that time, families relied on their own water source and an eel a day (or as long as it lived), kept the pests away. The creature was in a safe environment and it ate well. The family, in turn, had relatively clean water. Relatively. Because, you know, there's still an eel down there.

The property was bought by its current owner, the Kjellman family, in 1962. They knew about the eel in the well and became so fond of the creature that they named it Åle and showed it to their friends.

Åle wasn't Normal

By the time the Kjellmans moved in, Åle was approximately 100 years old. This was already bizarre since eels rarely live past the age of 7. However, nothing lives forever and the plucky fish passed away in 2014. By then, the eel was 155 years old.

Perhaps the secret of its longevity had something to do with the well. Åle wasn't the only eel down there. It had a companion which was estimated, during 2014, to be 110 years old. Two eels hitting the triple age digits in the same well. What are the odds?

5. One Powered a Christmas Tree

Alright, we all know the drill. Don't touch an electric eel. The fish can release a surprising amount of voltage, depending on how crabby they feel. This electrical ability is not purely defensive. Eels live in dark places and use tiny shocks to sense their environment, much like a bat uses radar.

Enter Sparky, an eel at the Living Planet Aquarium in Utah. Well deserving of his name, the male pulsed electricity when he moved, searched for food or became ticked off. The latter made him zing his tank with 600 volts. He was such a power bonanza that staff decided to enlist his help with the annual Christmas display.

Starting in 2012, Sparky powered the aquarium's Christmas tree. Don't worry, no eels were harmed during the making of this movie. A pair of electrodes were installed in the tank and collected the electricity that powered four lines of lights decorating a tree next to Sparky's tank. The eel did well. Just by being himself, the lights stayed on.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Jana Louise Smit

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