GYMNOTITS, the gymnote, in natural history, a genus of fishes or the order Apodes. Generic character : the head with lateral opercula ; two teniac-ula on the upper lip ; eyes covered by the com mon skin ; gill.membrane five-rayed ; sly compressed, generally without a dor sal fin, but carinated by a fin beneath. There are nine species, of which we shall notice G. electricus, or the electrical gymnote. This is generally of the length of three or four feet, is of an unpleasant appearance, much like a large eel, but thicker in proportion to the length, and always of the colour of a blackish brown.
It has, occasionally, been seen of the length of ten feet. It is found in the hot climates of Africa and America, particu larly in the rivers of Surinam and Sene gal. Towards the close of the 17th cen tury, a memoir was presented by M. Ri cher to the French Academy, announcing his discovery of a very pecular quality of this fish, by which it communicated to the person touching it a very sudden and violent shock. This statement, however, was considered as fabulous for a consi derable time, and it was not till about the middle of the last century that all scepticism on this subject, even among learned and scientific men, completely vanished, and this very peculiar proper ty was universally allowed to attach to the fish in question. Dr. Garden, of Charles town, in South Carolina, after giving an elaborate description of the form and structure of this animal, adds, that it has the power of giving an electrical shock to any person, or to any number of per sons who join hands together, the ex treme person on each side touching the fish. There were five of these fishes un der his immediate inspection at the above town, all which possessed this property in a high degree, and they could com municate the shock to any number of in dividuals, either by the immediate touch of the fish by one of them, or through the medium of a metalline rod ; but when they were first caught, this power was snore fully possessed by them than some time afterwards. He observed that, in his own case, the shock was never experi enced, when the fish was laid hold of by him with one hand only ; when it was held by both hands, at a considerable distance apart, he never failed to receive a sensi ble and smart one. Indeed, if it be held by one hand, and the other hand be im mersed in the water immediately over the body of the fish, the same effect will follow as if the fish were held by both hands, and so it will be with respect to any number of persons joining in a circle, one hand of the person at one extremity holding the fish, and the person at the other extremity placing his hand in the water over the gymnote. This shock is
considered as completely electrical, all the circumstances of it resembling those of the electricity of the atmosphere. It is passed by the same conductors, and in terrupted by the same electrics. These fishes are caught in Surinam river, consi derably above the reach of the sea-water. They subsist on fishes, worms, or any ani mal food, which is small enough for them to swallow; and when any fish is thrown at them, they will immediately communi cate to it a shock, by which it is stupifi ed. If the fish be large, several shocks are requisite, and are applied for this pur pose, and many are thus destroyed by the gymnote which it is unable to swallow, and after repeated attempts finds itself obliged to abandon. The shock inflicted by these creatures on others, intended by them for prey, is by no means always, nor perhaps generally, fatal, and many have been speedily recovered, after being re moved into another vessel from that in which they received the shock, and in which they were rendered motionless, and to all appearance dead, by it. It ap pears that the electrical fish has no teeth, and the most minute examination of the fishes contained in their stomachs could discover no marks of laceration, even in the slightest degree. Gymnotes of three feet in length are incapable of swallowing any fish larger than three inches and a half. It appears that the strength of their peculiar talent is in proportion to their magnitude, and it is stated that there are some in Surinam river, whose length is twenty feet, and whose shock is followed by immediate death to any human being, who is so unfortunate as to be exposed to it. it is observed, that even after the electrical fish is dead, it retains, for a considerable time, more or leSs of this singular property. It is a fish greatly and justly dreaded by the inhabitants of those countries, the rivers of which it fre quents; it is, however, notwithstanding this circumstance, used by them for food, and even by some considered as a capital delicacy. For a representation of the gymnotus electricus, see Pisces, Plate IV. fig. 5.