In this paper, I draw an analogy between the use of electricity by electric eels (Electrophorus electricus
) to paralyze prey muscles and the use of venoms that paralyze prey by disrupting the neuromuscular junction. The eel’s strategy depends on the recently discovered ability of eels to activate prey motor neuron efferents with high-voltage pulses. Usually, eels use high voltage to cause brief, whole-body tetanus, thus preventing escape while swallowing prey whole. However, when eels struggle with large prey, or with prey held precariously, they often curl to bring their tail to the opposite side. This more than doubles the strength of the electric field within shocked prey, ensuring maximal stimulation of motor neuron efferents. Eels then deliver repeated volleys of high-voltage pulses at a rate of approximately 100 Hz. This causes muscle fatigue that attenuates prey movement, thus preventing both escape and defense while the eel manipulates and swallows the helpless animal. Presumably, the evolution of enough electrical power to remotely activate ion channels in prey efferents sets the stage for the selection of eel behaviors that functionally “poison” prey muscles.
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