NatGeo calls it a "shocking find," but Amazonian villagers are presumably unsurprised (given that they have been exploiting this odd behavior since at least 1800). Check out the video here, and send your thanks to Kenneth Catania for finally demonstrating that the old legends are true: electric eels can and do launch their bodies out of the water to attack large animals.
Further, these eels purposefully keep their chin in contact with the landlubber during their leap, delivering a severe shock and slithering higher out of the water to maximize their impact.
Alexander von Humboldt first described this phenomenon after observing villagers in present-day Venezuela demonstrate "fishing with horses." The villagers would, from time to time, lead horses into a pool swimming with electric eels, wait while the eels launch themselves out of the water (shocking the horses), then collect the tired eels for dinner. Poor horses! See an illustration here.
When scientist Ken Catania* tried to transfer some of his lab's electric eels from one tank to another, he presumably leapt backwards shrieking in fear as the eels launched themselves out of the water to attack his net. He probably placed his hands on the table to conceal their trembling when giving the following descriptive quote: "[the eel] would press its chin against the handle and explode out of the water upwards along the handle towards my hand." I imagine a slight tremor in his voice as he goes on. "I was wearing gloves, so I wasn’t in any danger of being shocked," he begins, pasting a fake smile on his face-- a smile belied by darting eyes, hollow with the fear of a hunted man**-- "but it was a pretty shocking experience, anyway.” Ha ha!
To test the eels' behavior, Catania set up a simple but beautiful experiment. He dunked a fake alligator head into the tank, and, to his delight, the eels leapt out of the water and shocked the faux alligator. The video is scary on a primal level.
But take comfort in this: so far, it appears that eels only do this to animals that they consider threats. Whether they use this strategy for hunting remains to be seen.
So eels have more up their sleeves than you might think. To depart briefly from the theme of "terrifying" into the realm of "heartwarming," check out the tale of the Eel and the Bartender***. It sounds like the premise for a bad joke, but is one of the most beautiful stories of friendship I know.
*(whose lab motto seems to be "find and study the weirdest organisms you can!)
**This is purely imaginative.
***But remember-- electric eels aren't actually eels. They are knifefish. Pull that factoid out at a party to win instant friends!
More than 200 years ago naturalist Alexander von Humboldt recounted seeing electric eels leaping out of the water to attack horses in the Amazon. The locals herded some 30 horses and mules into a small pool provoking the eels to attack – and kill some of the – horses. The method, he wrote, was used to “fish with horses”, because locals could pick up the exhausted eels safely after the mayhem. But it was thought to be an exaggeration because nobody else had witnessed a similar assault. Until now, that is.