I want to make a species that can grab and handle live electrical wires bare-handedly and be A-OK.

What are some natural biological electrical insulators that can

  1. cover their hands thoroughly,
  2. preferably not obstruct them too much (i.e. as much of a range of movement as is possible), and
  3. be regrown by a biological process possible under Earth-based biochemistry?
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind, if you touch only ONE live wire, your hands (protected by gloves) are not the only isolator involved. Electric connections have 2 sides. A barefooted species will be more vulnerable than species with hooves, like cattle, or - bipedal - a devil.. it won't need gloves, the hooves will be sufficient isolation, not connecting the animal to earth. Your scenario always involves touching TWO live wires with both hands ? $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Oct 2 '21 at 22:22
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You say "live electrical wires". Please define what order of magnitude of voltage is present on the "live electrical wires". There's a substantial difference between the voltages which are used in various circumstances. Are you talking "live electrical wires" like you'd find inside a piece of consumer electronics? in the wires in a residential home (where in the world, as it varies)? in the transmission lines used in neighborhoods? in large/lond distance transmission lines? $\endgroup$
    – Makyen
    Oct 3 '21 at 1:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Makyen Between residental home voltage and 500 volts. $\endgroup$
    Oct 3 '21 at 3:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Makyen Also, there is a difference between ac and dc current. Since ac goes through 'zero' twice a cycle, it gives two chances per cycle for reflexes to act. dc voltages are usually more dangerous to creatures. Also, ac tends to 'ride the surface' whereas dc travels equally throughout the conductor. That is why high frequency ac wires (speaker wires) are usually fine stranded wire. - far more surface area. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ Insulation for residential voltage and 500 volts is 'piddling easy'. Consider one thin layer of electrical tape will insulate 500 volts. The high tension wires serving the transformers in residential areas (the top wire on residential poles) are in excess of 10 kvolts, and that is the wire that kills squirrels. The wires used in fences to keep cattle from wandering use thousands of volt, and they just shock. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 15:08

Keratin is already capable of being an electrical insulator. The right kinds of hair/fur and nails/claws could allow grabbing of live conductors. It is entirely plausible that suitably dry, thick skin (like a big callus) could also work here... maybe you could even imagine a sort of natural leather where glands secrete toughening and perserving chemicals that are rubbed into parts of the body that need to be super tough.

An electrical current with the right parameters might still be dangerous (high voltage, high frequency, like you might find on a big radio antenna) but in general the right kind of hairy, scaly or leathery paws should be fine.

If you wanted to move away from the kingdom animalia a bit, remember that latex is an entirely natural chemical, and rubber is unambiguously insulating.

  • $\begingroup$ See answer by A Rogue Ant regarding latex. Using it as an insulator is not completely straightforward. The rubber strands need to be 'released' from their protein shell before they can form an effective barrier, by coagulating. There are bacteria that will naturally coagulate it,, but this takes hours if not days. $\endgroup$ Oct 4 '21 at 14:53

Natural rubber.

I'm not just referring to latex from the Indian or Congo versions of the tree traditionally yielding raw rubber, but the humble dandelion root contains a processable form.

Used as an electrical insulator (rubber gloves etc.) since the discovery of electricity, under ideal conditions a breakdown voltage of 22 - 40kV per mm thickness can be expected (about 450 - 700 kV per inch).

Simply dip your hands in the liquid and wait for the sticky white fluid to dry clear.

Note: After discussion in the comments, I've looked into it a little further and concluded that although vulcanisation of the rubber might be preferable for better mechanical properties if achieved with short ligands of sulphur, it's honestly not worth the bother of the processing - raw latex will do just fine. (Ensure to apply as many layers as provides even coverage and dry thoroughly before use with HT sources).

(Maybe apply talc powder to the final layer to prevent fingers clumping).

  • $\begingroup$ Natural latex has to be vulcanized - changed into long polymers - before it gains its 'rubber' properties. You would need a reference to support that natural unprocessed latex, 'dipping your hand in the liquid' would work as an insulator. meridian.allenpress.com/rct/article-abstract/16/2/318/86777/… $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ You might just have a point there, I'm not sure how to vulcanize rubber except at high temperatures, which would make it tough to just "dip the hand" as I specified. I'll have a ponder and see if I can come up with a sensible edit taking this into account. (If I can't find a ref that cured raw latex is good enough). @JustinThymetheSecond $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:35
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hydrogen peroxide, under specific conditions, with the proper catalyst. rubbertech.wordpress.com/2013/07/26/peroxide-vulcanisation I used this in an answer to another question about producing rubber-like scarring in creatures. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That is incorrect. Vulcanization is a distinct process from the coagulation that turns liquid latex into solid rubber. Latex will polymerize and harden into rubber on simple exposure to air (being a wound-healing mechanism for the plants that produce it), vulcanization adds cross-links between the molecular chains that further stabilize the solid rubber and change its mechanical properties. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Only in cold temperatures where raw rubber hardens. Vulcanization makes it firmer, more elastic, more durable, and expands its useful temperature range. Rubber items are typically formed while in the unvulcanized state and then vulcanized to make them hold that shape. Finished goods are almost always vulcanized today, but rubber had been in use long before Goodyear developed the process. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 16:59

This is a frame challenge.

The answer would be pretty much any animal that ever existed, and any skin that ever existed on any animal.

Electricians use leather gloves when they handle high tension wires, for instance. The hide of animals. An excellent insulator.

Skin itself has a very high electrical insulating ability, a very high resistance. It is the pores in the skin, with sweat and such, that are the conductors.

Further, touching very high tension electrical wires is never a problem. Squirrels and birds do it all the time. Electricians handle live wires with thousands of volts potential difference. It is only dangerous when one is ALSO touching something else, that completes the path. An earth ground, for instance. If there is no complete path, there is no current flow, and it is the current flow that kills, not the voltage.

So basically ANY species "can grab and handle live electrical wires bare-handedly and be A-OK."

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ leather is DRIED hide, wet leather is a horrible insulator. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 2 '21 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ @John The electrical resistance of human skin is upwards of 100,000 ohms. $\endgroup$ Oct 2 '21 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ which is only a little higher than the resistance of water. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 2 '21 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ @John Pure water, pure H2O, is almost a perfect insulator. There are almost no current carriers, everything is bound so tightly. It has almost no conductivity. It is the impurities in water that allow it to conduct. Before you can practically decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen using electrolysis, impurities have to be added. $\endgroup$ Oct 2 '21 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ not pure water, tap water. it has approximately the same resistance as soaking wet wood, which conducts electricity well enough to burn lovely patterns into it. if skin was a good insulator, people could grab live bare house wire without issue. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 2 '21 at 23:50

Some oils are used as insulator in electric devices. Therefore the closest candidate I can imagine is fat:

  • it's water repellent, thus it reduces the possibility of having free ions
  • it can be grown quite easily (ask any 1st world inhabitant)

Of course it can still be subject to electrical breakdown, so its thickness must be adequate

  • $\begingroup$ True. "Electrical conductivity: The electrical conductivity of lipids is much smaller than that of aqueous substances, and so the conductivity of a food decreases as the lipid concentration increases. Measurements of the overall electrical conductivity of foods can therefore be used to determine fat contents." people.umass.edu/~mcclemen/581Lipids.html $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ Apparently, the more 'polymerized' the fat (longer chains) the less the conductivity. One would have to keep the blood vessels, lymph system, muscle tissue and nerves out of the fatty layer, however. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:50

So some animals manage to perch on high-voltage lines with no special protection every day. It is less to do with how protected they are (not at all) and more to do with the fact that they're only touching 1 conductor. I won't show a picture of what happens when a larger animal tries this and touches 2 high voltage wires at once, suffice to say the animal will die instantly and probably knock out power to a few blocks. But even if they were wearing that protective gear and touched two conductors, that would still happen. High voltage is powerful, scary stuff. Increasing the resistance of your body from a few hundred ohms to say 1 mega-ohm isn't going to make a difference if the insulators have say, 10 mega-ohm resistance. You would still be the path of least resistance, so would get to carry the electrical current.

For handling low voltage wires basically every electrician does it at some point if only on accident. Results will vary depending on the path it takes through your body -- for instance going in one hand and out the other means the voltage will travel through your heart, possibly stopping it. But if it enters your hand and exits at the elbow, you'll just get a burned arm instead.

The much wiser course of action than developing a biological adaptation to this is to stop handling live wires :) Just de-energize the equipment and fix it safely.

These birds are not vaporized.

  • $\begingroup$ A clarification - "...You would still be the path of least resistance, " A common but dangerous myth. Current does NOT follow the path of least resistance. It follows ALL paths, but inversely proportionate to resistance. The lower the resistance, the higher the current, for the same voltage. But it STILL follows a path of high resistance as well. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ "... isn't going to make a difference if the insulators have say, 10 mega-ohm resistance." The value of the insulators makes absolutely no difference. It is ALWAYS 'current = voltage/resistance', no matter what the resistance is anywhere else in the circuit. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ 'But if it enters your hand and exits at the elbow, you'll just get a burned arm instead.' No you will NOT get burned. The most you will feel with normal residential line voltages is a tingle. People have been struck by lightning, at thousands of kilovolts, and not had a blemish on them. In the majority of cases, death by electrocution is death by suffocation - the person stops breathing; or by heart attack - the heart goes into fibrillation; not physical damage. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ However you would like to articulate the change in circuit, in the end you are adding a biological conductor in parallel to some part of the circuit. As for whether you get burned or not that is more dependent on the current than the voltage. Static electricity powerful enough to be seen and felt is about > 1,000v but < 1 milliamp of current. A typical appliance circuit on the other hand might have 20 amps behind it. The type of current also matters, as AC forces your muscles to contract and keeps you in parallel with the circuit longer. $\endgroup$ Oct 4 '21 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ Speaking from experience when I say you absolutely can and will get burned by even 1 phase of 110vac. At that voltage probably the length of contact matters more. Most of the voltage I dealt with was much higher than that. $\endgroup$ Oct 4 '21 at 8:27

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