2016 Children's Science News - Silver


From its opening paragraphs about a zoologist’s unwise affection for a pet eel named “Sparky,” to its description of an eel’s use of electrical pulses to trick its prey into revealing their location, Roberta Kwok’s story on electric eels offered a fascinating glimpse into the behavior of these underwater predators capable of demolishing an entire school of fish. Philip Stoddard, the Florida International University zoologist who attempted to pet Sparky, was immediately zapped with about 500 volts of electricity, roughly four times the jolt he would have received from a typical electrical outlet in a North American house. As he told Kwok, it was Sparky’s way of saying, “Don’t even think about it, Phil!”  Ken Catania, a Vanderbilt University biologist, told Kwok how electric eels use bursts of electricity to freeze their prey in place and also use the current like radar to figure out an animal’s position. Catania has found that an eel’s short burst of electricity can cause a goldfish’s muscles to twitch, creating ripples in the water that the eel can feel and use to find a hiding fish. Each time Catania watched the eels closely, new questions emerged. While he remains curious about what it would be like to get a shock from a big electric eel, he has not followed Stoddard’s lead. As Kwok put it, “That’s one question he’ll leave unanswered.” Kwok’s account “is not only a ripping good yarn, it is also a wonderful description of the process of science,” said freelance writer John Carey. “Her story makes science seem both fun and compelling—and something that children could aspire to do themselves.” Kwok said she was intrigued by research that “started as a spontaneous side project driven by one scientist’s curiosity, which he then had to devise rather odd and increasingly complicated experiments to satisfy. His story gave me a great opportunity to illustrate the scientific process to kids.”