Our shocking eel story wins international prize | Science News for Students

Our shocking eel story wins international prize

It described the unexpected tactics by which electric eels find and catch prey
Nov 16, 2016 — 1:50 pm EST
electric eel

A type of electric fish, this eel generates stunning voltages to zap its prey using special cells known as electrocytes. And our story on this fish just picked up an electrifying journalism award!

KENNETH CATANIA

A story this past June described the shocking — and unexpected — ways that electric eels find their next meal. It was no surprise that these fish immobilize their prey with a zap so they can gulp that lunch down. What wasn’t expected was how the eels wield electric fields to probe their environment. They use those fields to sense and find hiding prey. They can even find fish that don’t move. The story proved popular with our readers. Today we learned it also proved popular with the judges of a major international science-writing competition. They named this story their silver award winner for science journalism for youth.

It’s the second AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award in two years for Science News for Students. Last year, Stephen Ornes brought home a gold award for his piece “Where will lightning strike?” (It seems the judges love stories that shine light on the electrical world.)

Roberta Kwok
Roberta Kwok has been covering animals and more for this magazine since 2007.
R. Kwok

This year’s win was crafted by Roberta Kwok, a writer based in Seattle, Wash. When she took on the eel assignment for us, she said it sounded like fun. In fact, her piece proved a delight for readers as well.

This story “is not only a ripping good yarn,” said freelance writer John Carey, but also “a wonderful description of the process of science.” The story “makes science seem both fun and compelling” and something that today’s students “could aspire to do themselves.”

Kwok notes that she was intrigued by studies of the eels that had “started as a spontaneous side project.” An unexpected observation in the lab roused the curiosity of a scientist in Tennessee. He saw some strange behaviors. Then, he then went on to devise some rather odd and increasingly complicated tests to probe what might explain those behaviors. Says Kwok: “His story gave me a great opportunity to illustrate the scientific process.”

Readers of Science News for Students may be familiar with Kwok’s byline. She has authored more than 30 stories for us, starting in May 2007. They’ve covered dung beetles, the lifesaving secrets of slime and the animal world’s true vampires. She has explored the amazing mantis shrimp that can swing its "club” at speeds of up to 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and with enough force to shatter the glass of the fish tank in which it may be held. Kwok also has delved into the mysterious caecilians — legless amphibians that might be mistaken for snakes — and alien carp that can leap from the water with enough punch to knock a boater unconscious (or break his arm). Clearly, Roberta is at home writing about animals.

But she has also tackled more than biology. A 2013 story on “smart cleaners” described the lengths engineers and materials scientists have gone to in their quest for surfaces that will repel stains, insects and germs. She’s covered the bromine releases spewed by erupting volcanoes, which may have climate-altering impacts. And she launched our Cool Jobs series back in 2012. That piece focused on robots that can help with everything from surgery and disaster response to communicating with autistic children.

Says Kwok: “My favorite part of the job is learning about scientists’ everyday lives: their mistakes, the obstacles they face, the weird tales from the field.” But she’s not all work. “When I’m not writing about science,” she notes, “I like playing the piano and hiking in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.”

All of us at Science News for Students wish Kwok the heartiest of congratulations. Her award is long overdue!

SHOCKING SPEED This video shows how the eel’s electrical pulses first detect and then immobilize its prey (shown in speeds slower than life). In full-color sequences, knocklike sounds indicate electrical discharges from the eels. Black-and-white sequences have been colorized (red) to indicate when the eel is releasing electrical charges.
Science News (with Catania footage)

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

alien     A non-native organism.

amphibians     A group of animals that includes frogs, salamanders and caecilians. Amphibians have backbones and can breathe through their skin. Unlike reptiles, birds and mammals, unborn or unhatched amphibians do not develop in a special protective sac called an amniotic sac.

behavior     The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

caecilian     A type of amphibian that has no legs. Caecilians have ring-shaped folds of skin called annuli, small eyes covered by skin and sometimes bone, and a pair of tentacles. Most of them live underground in the soil, but some spend their entire lives in water.

carp     A type of catfish, usually referring the Asian freshwater varieties that can grow to enormous size and are often farmed as food.

climate     The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

dung     The feces of animals, also known as manure.

eel     A fish with a snake-like body and no scales. Many migrate from freshwater to salt water when it’s time to spawn.

electric field     A region around a charged particle or object within which a force would be exerted on other charged particles or objects.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create for that organism or process. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature, humidity and placement of components in some electronics system or product.

force     Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.

germ     Any one-celled microorganism, such as a bacterium, fungal species or virus particle. Some germs cause disease. Others can promote the health of higher-order organisms, including birds and mammals. The health effects of most germs, however, remain unknown.

lightning     A flash of light triggered by the discharge of electricity that occurs between clouds or between a cloud and something on Earth’s surface. The electrical current can cause a flash heating of the air, which can create a sharp crack of thunder.

mantis shrimp     A marine animal related to crabs and lobsters. Mantis shrimp use armlike body parts to kill prey. They are often multicolored and have a very complex vision system.

prey     (n.) Animal species eaten by others. (v.) To attack and eat another species.

robot     A machine that can sense its environment, process information and respond with specific actions. Some robots can act without any human input, while others are guided by a human.