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The Shocking History of Electric FishesFrom Ancient Epochs to the Birth of Modern Neurophysiology$
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Stanley Finger and Marco Piccolino

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780195366723

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195366723.001.0001

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Rediscovering the Torporific Catfish

Rediscovering the Torporific Catfish

(p.112) Chapter 7 Rediscovering the Torporific Catfish
The Shocking History of Electric Fishes

Stanley Finger

Marco Piccolino

Oxford University Press

As shown in the previous chapter, the Renaissance in the West was a period in which the limits of the world were broadened in many ways. Geographically, this was a time marked by great navigations toward far and unexplored lands with new wonders to behold. This chapter focuses on Africa and particularly Ethiopia to look at how these voyages and this widening of the world during the Age of Discovery drew more attention to electric fish. It examines how the silurus or electric catfish (Malapterurus electricus), so beautifully depicted on Egyptian tomb paintings and alluded to by some scholars in the Middle East, was “discovered” by Europeans who were in Africa in the Early Modern Era. The emphasis is on the Portuguese missionaries in Ethiopia, and how their findings were described and disseminated. It is shown that the early descriptions focused on the ability of this fish to torpify, while providing minimal morphological information. This caused some people to confuse the elongated African river catfish with disk-like sea torpedoes, as well as with the electric eel that was just being discovered in South America.

Keywords:   Africa, ethiopia, electric fishes, electric catfish, torpedoes, electric eel

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