Event Abstract

Who found electric fish first?

  • 1 Albert Einstein College of Medicine, United States

Roman fisherman no doubt had experience of electric shocks from Mediterranean torpedoes, and these fish may have been used to administer shocks to “crazy people”. The finding that fish generated electricity is usually credited to Adamson, the French naturalist, who went to Africa from Europe after invention of the Leiden jar and presumably the experience of being shocked. When visiting a native village he observed that boys (and possibly girls) were made to put a hand into a pottery vessel when they had been bad. Adamson put his hand in out of curiosity and received a painful shock that he identified as electrical. Subsequent investigation proved that the vessel contained an electric catfish, Malapterurus. There is a Greek reference to electric catfish as thunder fish, cited by Darcy Thompson. Although Americans prefer to think that Ben Franklin discovered the electrical nature of lightning, this name is suggestive of much earlier recognition of a similarity between this fish and the origin of thunder. In the Osiris legend as reported by the Greek philosopher, Plutarch, and discussed here by B. Brier, three teleosts, Phagrus, Barbus binni, and Oxyrhynchus, play an important role. The question arose as to why these fishes were chosen, since one cannot take the account literally. Brier and I investigated this question by visiting numerous Egyptian tombs and temples and examining the friezes and paintings for special treatment of these, the sacred fishes. In all three eras, Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, depictions of fishing were common. Surprisingly, the sacred fish were not accorded any special treatment and were shown after catching, presumably dead, and in a frieze in the Louvre, mormyrids are being dried for storage and presumably eating. We could hypothesize that Phagrus corresponding to Bagrus, a genus of catfishes, was really the electric catfish, and we found that its electric nature is common knowledge along the Nile. Moreover, its discharge voltage is several hundred volts in a large specimen, and even when near dead, it is capable of giving a painful shock. For Barbus binni, probably Tilapia sp., we have no idea why was selected; it very likely was an important food species. Finally, Oxyrhynchus is a species of mormyrid, of which several have a long pointed snout, and which in tropical fish stores are known as elephant nose fish. Fishermen along the Nile, who generally use gill nets that kill the fish, do not know that mormyrids are electric, nor could one of us (MVLB) detect shocks from live and reasonably happy but rather small fish in New York. Thus, the second arm of our investigation was to seine fish from the Nile (near Luxor) and test the amplitude of the discharges and whether they were perceptible. Indeed, a moderate sized fish generates a well suprathreshold shock, and much larger fish are (or were) being caught in Lake Nasser. Egyptian tomb and temple depictions generally show fishes all of the same size, independent of actual measurements, so we cannot determine the usual size of these fishes as caught then. Nevertheless, we can conclude that the capacity of generating perceptible shocks is indeed likely to be responsible for the selection of Oxyrhynchus as a sacred fish.

Conference: 3rd Mediterranean Conference of Neuroscience , Alexandria, Egypt, 13 Dec - 16 Dec, 2009.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Symposium 20 – Mormyrid fishes in myth, membranes and molecules

Citation: Bennett MV (2009). Who found electric fish first?. Front. Neurosci. Conference Abstract: 3rd Mediterranean Conference of Neuroscience . doi: 10.3389/conf.neuro.01.2009.16.068

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Received: 20 Nov 2009; Published Online: 20 Nov 2009.

* Correspondence: Michael V Bennett, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, United States, michael.bennett@einstein.yu.edu