Question Context:

I've been developing insect-looking bipeds that have evolved on a mostly jungle/ocean planet in addition to small, scattered grasslands. This is justified (from what I've read) by a thick nitrogen/oxygen/carbon-dioxide and humid atmosphere, significant amounts of water, continents mostly placed near the equator, and possibly a slower planetary rotation/adjusted tilt. These creatures are mostly predatory, developing and embracing an elite warrior culture and are likely the best soldiers and warriors in the galaxy, almost always outmatching any other galactic creature or society in combat. These creatures on average are around 7.5 ft tall and weigh roughly 200+ pounds, but these measurements are flexible to change if necessary.

Various fantasy settings depict humanoid-like and other non-humanoid creatures possessing the ability to generate and accurately direct lightning (Vortigaunts from the Half-Life series and Pokemon being the first that comes to mind). This ability is usually depicted capable of incapacitating/severely injuring other creatures over a moderate distance on land, usually over a couple of meters. The process by which the creatures in these settings generate and direct lighting is almost always hand-waved or just explained with magic/magic-like means. I envision my creatures possessing this ability, emitting lightning/electric shocks on land through tentacle-like structures.

Although there are creatures of Earth that are capable of bioelectrogenesis, these creatures are mostly fish like the electric eel. Although the electric eel is capable of generating electric shocks powerful enough to stun prey, their ability to produce electricity is nothing compared to that of the fantasy creatures described previously.


Is it biologically possible for these terrestrial creatures to generate and accurately direct lighting or electric shocks that can be used at a distance on land that is powerful enough to kill opponents or prey? If so, how energy demanding would such a trait be per shock for these creatures?

  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP you direct electricity with a conductor. Tazer uses a wire, biological creature can shoot strands of slime. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Nov 9 '18 at 23:29

You would need several adaptations working together to allow an organism to emit lightning, specifically you would need organs to generate power, store power, ground the creature, generate a large voltage differential to overcome the air resistance, and generate an ion stream to point the lightning somewhat and also lower the air resistance further.

First power generation, this can be done with basically the same organs the electric eel uses except optimized to produce continuous power vs brief bursts.

Power storage could be accomplished by essentially creating a large capacity capacitor using layers of thin wide scales with a highly conductive core and highly resistive coating. Every other scale would be connected to one electrical circuit system which would accumulate a positive charge while the other scales would be connected to a circuit system that would accumulate a negative charge. The scale capacitor organ would, of course, be charged with the power generation organs.

The grounding organ would consist of the positively charged circuit system connected to the creature's feet which would be designed to maximize the conductivity of anything it touches by excreting a highly conductive mucus over a large padded area and onto it conductive claws.

Next comes the lightning generating tentacles. The skin of the tentacles would be a spiral of cells, conductive on the inside and insulative on the outside. When a large dc current is passed through the skin of the tentacles, again generated by the power generation organs, they would act like a giant spark plug and would quickly begin to store energy in the magnetic field around the long coil of tentacle skin cells.

The final organ would be at the tip of the tentacle and would form essentially an organic cathode-ray tube. Two conductive plates, one near the tip with a hole in the center would be positively charged, while the other plate further back from the tip would be negatively charged. Electrons would flow from the negative plate to the positive plate with some leaving as a stream through the hole in the plate near the tip. The stream of electrons would serve to lower the resistance of the air in their direction of travel allowing some level of aiming the lightning once generated.

Now to put this all together the creature would ground its self with its feet, begin charging its capacitor scales and once sufficient power is stored switch to generating a dc current through its sparkplug like tentacle skin and point its cathode-ray like tentacle tip organ at the enemy. Then a quick chemical dump in a switching portion of the tentacle skin would break the circuit. The counter electromotive force caused by the magnetic field in the tentacle skin collapsing would cause a massive voltage spike overcoming the air resistance along the least resistive path... hopefully in the direction of the ion stream coming from the tip of the tentacle towards the enemy and all the power stored in the capacitor scales would dump into the target in a flash of lightning.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a very interesting and in-depth answer. How much energy would these creatures need to put into making these lightning bolts? How far do you think these bolts could go, and how far would they be effective at incapacitating/severely injuring other creatures? $\endgroup$ – MinimumReaction Nov 10 '18 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ A quick google search on the number of calories worth of energy is expended in a lightning bolt puts it at roughly 120 million. A pound of fat has roughly 3500 calories, so the creature would need to burn at absolute theoretical minimum 34,000 pounds of fat to get the energy for a lightning bolt. So that is a bit too much for a natural organism to spend doing its normal day to day activities. However, if the creature had the above adaptations it could have the effects of a pretty decent taser that would extend perhaps 3-4 feet from the tip of the tentacle. $\endgroup$ – user3389672 Nov 12 '18 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ Could you clarify how you reached your conclusion of 120 million calories and total distance of 3-4 feet for every bolt? Would it be possible to lower the amount of calories required to a calorically demanding, but relatively manageable amount per bolt? Could the distance be increased? $\endgroup$ – MinimumReaction Nov 13 '18 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ I got the 120 million calories number by googling "calories in a lightning bolt". That would be for the "average" lightning bolt, so I am sure you could make a smaller one, but even if you did it would be 3 orders of magnitude smaller than the average before you would ONLY burn 34 pounds of fat worth of energy. The 3-4 feet distance is a bit of a guess as there are a lot of factors that go into determining air gap conductivity (temp, humidity, pressure, ions present, etc) and there are a lot of factors that go into how effective the tentacle would be for creating the voltage differential. $\endgroup$ – user3389672 Nov 18 '18 at 1:22

Some insects, such as crickets and cicadas, "sing" by rubbing body parts (usually wings and legs). A giant insect could rub a wing against a leg to generate static charge. If the feet are insulated from the ground, the charge will hold, and then they can discharge by getting close to a victim.

A pointy part like a leg adapted for it, or an antenna,.will help deliver. In fact, pointy parts are better at delivering shockw at small distances through a spark.

If you don't like the idea of static charges created by friction, then see one of the most awesome questions thiae site has ever had, also on electric creatures:

How do I explain a unicorn discharging powerful electricity at a distance?

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    $\begingroup$ Static charge is an interesting idea. Would the discharging of this static electricity have the appearance of lightning? How far of a distance would they be accurate and effective at incapacitating/severely injuring other creatures? How quickly could these creatures generate enough electricity to be effective at incapacitating/severely injuring other creatures? $\endgroup$ – MinimumReaction Nov 10 '18 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, a few centimeters, maybe up to a couple feet away, and it depends heavily on their phisiology, respectively. $\endgroup$ – Renan Nov 10 '18 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ Is there a way of extending how far this ability can accurately and effectively be used while retaining the appearance of lightning? If this ability can only be used within a foot of the target, I feel it would be more practical to just have these creatures shock only through physical contact which is what I'm trying to avoid. $\endgroup$ – MinimumReaction Nov 10 '18 at 21:37
  • $\begingroup$ @MinimumReaction check the unicorn question, some answers provide alternatives for range. $\endgroup$ – Renan Nov 10 '18 at 23:44

I posted this here: Draconic Creature externally getting electricity

but it did not get much love. I am bringing it back, edited.

Your creatures could be insulated on the outside, and roll and slide around on dry ground. They could charge themselves up with static electricity. Just like scuffling along in slippers on a winter day, then gently touching your brother on the ear. Scuffling thru the air counts - fine particles scuffling thru the air and collecting charge is where lightning comes from and the principle of air scuffling conferring charge is why planes have little lightning rods on them: to disperse accumulated charge. Sharp edges tend to bleed off charge and so for this method it would be advantageous for your creatures to be very round, or possibly like the Michelin Man.

A nearly spherical creature would be ideal for this if that works. Bonus: travel by bouncing.

A problem: on touching something grounded with some body part that is not insulated (tongue?) the creature gets an equivalent shock.

A solution is to have the creature spit or sneeze or otherwise launch discrete boluses of dispensable matter from its body towards the target. A lugey of electrolyte and mucus will carry some charge as it leaves and on hitting the grounded target, impart that charge. The dragon is not part of the circuit. This method also allows the dragon to parcel out charge in several shots as opposed to dumping it all at once (still possible via tongue method).

ADDENDUM It was pointed out to me that rather than scuffling on carpet or through the sky, the electric creature could accumulate charge by rubbing itself - much like one might rub a balloon on a child head to make her hair stand up, or accidentally shocking a dog or cat after accumulating charge by petting it. I can imagine this round warrior creature rubbing itself briskly immediately before launching a gooey charged blast at its prey.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting approach. Would this "gooey charged blast" have the appearance of lightning? How quickly would my creatures need to generate static electricity in order to create a strong enough charge to incapacitate/severely injure other creatures? $\endgroup$ – MinimumReaction Nov 11 '18 at 0:46
  • $\begingroup$ Lightning glows because of the conductive plasma conduit it produces through the air. The gooey charged blast would not glow; there would not be plasma. How quickly to generate static electricity - that depends on the surfaces rubbed together and the energy with which they are rubbed. $\endgroup$ – Willk Nov 11 '18 at 22:42

Is it biologically possible? No there is no precedent remotely capable of this expression. Eels store nowhere near this kind of energy and are not immune to their own shocks.

Is it theoretically biologically possible? Potentially, you would need to some how create a biological battery or capacitor capable of storing the energy of a lightning bolt. To say the least this is difficult with even todays technology.

Can lightning be directed? No, lightning follows the path of least resistance and cannot be directed horizontally over land.

Can I BS the illusion that lightning can be directed? Yes and no, if you were to shoot a super conductive cable from your hand and attach it to a high point on the enemy you could achieve the effect of directing a lightning shock at a target. Here's the kicker, in order to reproduce the visual of the lightning, the cable would have to be used up/consumed/burned in each attack. In order for the intense light of a lightning bolt to be emitted, material has to enter a plasmatic state. Turning solid matter like a cable into a plasmatic state (while in a reactive atmosphere) results in it being vaporized.

  • $\begingroup$ What biological substance would you suggest for the "conductive cable"? What would cause this substance to enter a plasmatic state? $\endgroup$ – MinimumReaction Nov 11 '18 at 0:49

You mentioned electric eels. Your humanoid warrior can have an symbiotic relationship with an such an eel, who resides in a suitably shaped a bodily orifice of the warrior. The bodily waste that was originally eliminated through the orifice serves as food for the eel, and warrior requests an electric bolt by squeezing said orifice. To direct the electric discharge to the enemy, either the warrior or the eel eject a high-pressure stream of electrolyte-rich liquid, which acts as a conductor.


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