I Sing The Body Electric

The human body generates more bioelectricity than a 120 volt battery and over 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. – Morpheus

Lately, I’ve been talking about animals in relation to machines. Today, let’s talk about animals not as conduits and generators. Let’s talk about bioelectromagnetism.

The American Paddlefish is a large freshwater fish living in the larger rivers of North America, such as the Mississippi. It has, as you can see, both an impressive schnoz and an enormous piehole. The two complement each other. Early naturalists first thought that its spoon-like nose was used to dig vegetation out of the river muck, but it turns out that its diet consists entirely of plankton. It gulps huge amounts of water and filters the plankton out with its gills, like a basking shark. And that paddle? It’s electroreceptive. It senses the weak bioelectrical field surrounding a cloud of plankton; the same bioelectric aura that surrounds all living things, and is, in fact, the essence of life.

As you know, every neuron in your body uses electricity to function. Every time your heat beats, you send an electrical impulse into the atmosphere. Every time you have a thought or sensation, you send out electricity in what we call a brainwave. Bioelectricity was discovered by the scientist Luigi Galvani, from whom we get the term galvanism, the contraction of a muscle when stimulated by an electrical current. Galvani discovered it by shocking dead frogs and watching them spasm; for an even more extreme illustration of bioelectromagnetism by torturing frogs, keep reading.

There are animals who can sense that bioelectricity and use it to find prey. The best examples are sharks and rays, whose pit-like ampullae d’lorenzini organs can detect the heartbeat of a clam buried under six inches of sand. Another master of electroreception is the duck-billed platypus, which finds tiny aquatic crustaceans under rocks even though it swims with its eyes closed.

Note the paddle-shaped nose. It’s not a coincidence. Check out the spade-shaped nose on the terrifying goblin shark. Goblin sharks and hammerheads have modified heads that give them space for more ampullae, turning them into living metal detectors.

Then there are electrogenerative animals which contain special organs which produce more bioelectricity than normal. Producing an electrical aura that finds hidden animals, they can also turn up the voltage and kill them.

The famous Electric Eel of South America can produce up to 500 volts of electricity, enough to kill a horse. Charmingly, the ancient Egyptian name for its own electric eel could be translated to “he who has saved many in the seas,” because if you caught one in your nets, the shock would make you immediately drop all your fish back in the water.

The Electric Ray can produce 220 volts, more than enough to stun or kill anything. It has two kidney-shaped organs on either side of its body which act like defibrillator paddles, and the ancient Greeks did, in fact, use live electric rays for medicinal purposes, particularly to numb the pain of operations and childbirth.

The Shocker is capable of producing over 180 volts, though males of most species are largely immune. It, too, has remedial properties, having been pioneered by the ancient Hindus for purposes of healthful stimulation.

What’s more, a crucial part of bioelectromagnetism is magnetism. Many migratory animals, such as pigeons, have high quantities of magnetite in their brains which allow them to sense the Earth’s magnetic fields. But all living creatures possess an electromagnetic charge. See what happens to this frog when it’s placed over a high-powered magnet:

We, too, have magnetite in our brains which allow us to weakly sense the Earth’s magnetic field, and perhaps even each other. Our bones are fantastic electrical conduits which connect us to the pulse of energy in the ground. Ever heard the term “animal magnetism”? It exists literally, and we can feel it. And here, finally, is the point. There are perhaps infinite life forms on this planet, all of them generating electricity, all of them sensing electricity — from each other, and from the Earth’s own electric current. The Earth, with its electric menagerie, generates an unthinkable amount of power. And just as cells in your body speak to each other between cell walls, and long-distance over the telephone lines of the nervous system, the electrical current between animals carries far and wide. Earth is functioning as an impossibly complex living supercomputer, with lifeforms transferring signals and information everywhere as bioelectricity. Earth is a brain. And every time it has a thought, it sends a little signal out into space…

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

4 responses to “I Sing The Body Electric

  • Ben Bormann

    So those folks who claim they can see auras *might* have some mutated gene for their eyes?

    Seriously, though, I know most birds can see in the UV spectrum, does that work in coordination with the magnetite?

  • Kosmos « The Quantum Biologist

    […] he advanced the science of volcanism, tested the bioluminescent properties of jellyfish and the electrogenerative powers of electric eels, dissected the larynx of the howler monkey, realized the use of bat guano as a fertilizer, figured […]

  • The Rogue Taxidermist « The Quantum Biologist

    […] platypus before: once to showcase the venomous spurs on its hind legs, and once to highlight the electroreceptive properties of its bill. The eccentric make-up of the platypus are well-known to anyone who ever graduated from ZooBooks: […]

  • John Spencer

    Dear Christian – Interesting article –

    How far away might an animal be able to sense a ferromagnet such as a fridge magnet of 100 Gauss?

    How quickly would that magnetic field deteriorate with distance?

    Is this a question you might be able to answer (even a guesstimate)

    I was reading an article from academics in Poland about how putting magnets in fishing nets increased catches significantly http://ursi.org/Proceedings/ProcGA02/papers/p0842.pdf

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