Monster of the Week: Blanka the Street Fighter

Monster of the Week: Blanka the Street Fighter
Blanka's curious spark. art by Omuk/Luc de Haan

The world of international street fighting is rife with strange characters, but none are as fascinating -- or delightfully monstrous -- as Blanka. The creature's origins are largely a mystery, but what happens when we apply the light of science?

The mere sight of this green-skinned, orange-haired Amazonian primate instantly makes an impression. Is his green pigmentation a naturally-occurring camouflage or a product of diet? Does his ginger hair provide clues of his genetic kinship to orangutangs or even man?

These are all tantalizing questions, but we're forced to abandon them in light of the creature's shocking natural ability.

Electric Thunder

When threatened, Blanka generates a potent electric field capable of sending even the fiercest yoga practitioner flying through the air. While exotic, this ability is not unheard of in the realm of natural-world organisms.

You are of course familiar with the electric eel (which is actually a relative of the catfish, not an eel), but this Amazonian is just one among hundreds of electric fish species in the world. Some six different lineages evolved independently of each other, making them prime, shocking examples of convergent evolution. According to a 2014 study of the electric eel genome from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the ability only appears in water-dwellers because the creature depends on water as a conductor.

The Electric Fish

Some electric fish use their spark for navigation or communication, but clearly that's not what our Blanka is up to.

(Linden Artists/Getty)

The electric eel is the best natural-world example to study, as this rather unimpressive-looking fish can deliver an offensive or defensive jolt several times more powerful than a household electrical outlet.

Amazingly enough, it's all a matter of muscle.

All muscles are fundamentally bioelectric. Contract any muscle and you'll release a small trickle of voltage. Electric fish, however, have spent 100 million years evolving muscle cells into larger cells called electrocytes. A whopping 90-percent of the electric eels's body amounts to a massive electric organ composed of this non-contracting muscle-like tissue.

Ballad of the Electric Ape

So what are we to make of Blanka? While the aquatic ape hypothesis is largely dismissed, it does seem as if this bizarre primate evolved to thrive in the Amazon basin. Over the course of many millions of years, the species adapted to a life spent wading through muddy waters, eventually employing a powerful bioelectric shock to paralyze fish and other aquatic prey.

How powerful? Just consider that an electric eel pumps out 100 volts per foot of length [Source: NPR]. Blanka weighs in a 216-pounds (98 kilograms) and stands 6'4 feet (192 centimeters) tall. While his muscular body clearly doesn't allot as much space for electrocytes, his shock clearly exceeds that of even the most powerful electric fish.

http://youtu.be/5Hm7vdZC4EU?t=1m59s

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.