How Elephant Fish Talk To Each Other With Electric Tails

African fish called mormyrids (also known as elephant fish) communicate with each other using electric discharges generated by an organ in their tails. But some of the fish are much better are reading the signals, and researchers think they’ve figured out why.

A study published in Science in 2011 described how some of the fish are able to perceive subtle variations in the waveform of electric signals, but another group are much less discriminating.

The fish with nuanced signal discrimination can glean a stunning amount of information from electric signals, including the signaler’s species, sex, age, relative dominance status, and possibly even individual identity. They can also detect emotional states, such as aggression, submission, courtship, and active exploration.

In a new study, published in the journal eLife, scientists describe how they used the fish’s sensory receptors to discover the basis for the perceptual differences between the two groups.

Elephant Fish Perceptual Differences

Says Bruce Carlson, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis:

“There had to be a neural correlate for the perceptual differences, so we looked to see if something was happening ‘out in the periphery’ where the signals are originally detected and encoded for processing in the brain.”

The receptors in the less discriminating fish encode signals very differently than do the receptors in the more discriminating fish. Further, the receptors of the less discriminating fish are tuned to the collective signals from schools or shoals of fish rather than to those from individual fish.

“As far as we know, this is the first time anyone has found a receptor tuned to group communication signals rather than those coming from individuals,”

Carlson says.


Weakly electric fish have sensory receptors in their skin, called knollenorgans, that detect electric pulses from their neighboring fish. The receptors are broadly distributed over the bodies of the discriminating fish, but in the less discriminating fish they are grouped into three clusters, or rosettes, on both sides of the head.

Says graduate student Christa Baker:

“We knew from work in the 1960s that there were differences in the physiology, or electrical behavior, of the sensory receptors. The broadly distributed receptors fire spikes, or action potentials, whereas the clustered receptors produce oscillating potentials at a constant frequency.

We learned that when the oscillating receptors receive an electric signal, they reset their oscillation to a particular point in the cycle. This phase reset briefly synchronizes the oscillations of different receptors.”

Carlson said:

“No one had ever described anything like this in a sensory system before. This is the first sensory receptor we know of that encodes stimuli by resetting the phase of ongoing oscillations.”

They investigated how the phase reset varied with different stimuli, according to Baker, and found that the oscillating receptors do not encode the same information as spiking receptors.

Why The Signaling?

The spiking receptors, which fire a nerve impulse every time there is an upward or downward excursion in the signal, are very good at encoding precise timing cues in signaling waveforms. But oscillating receptors encode only the onset of the signal and its point of origin.

“Fish with oscillating receptors are not behaviorally sensitive to waveform variation at least in part because the precise timing cues are not encoded by their receptors,” Baker says.

So why do the fish with oscillating receptors bother to signal at all? What information do their receptors provide? The answer emerged when the scientists looked at how the receptors are tuned.

The spiking receptors are maximally sensitive to frequencies near those that make up the signals from other members of their species. The oscillating receptors, however, are tuned to much lower frequencies than those that characterize signals from their fellow fish.

Gregarious Fish

“We found that the timing patterns they were most sensitive to were patterns that can only be produced by the collective signaling of large groups of fish,” Baker says “We think that the oscillating receptors help fish detect and locate those groups.”

But why are these two groups of fish so different?

“Our best guess is that differences in social behavior, in social organization, selected for differences in sensory capacities,”

Carlson says.

Based on what I’ve seen in the field, the fish able to perceive small differences in the communication signals tend to be solitary and territorial, whereas the fish whose receptors are tuned to group signals tend to be more gregarious.

My guess is that these two different lifestyles place very different selective pressures on communication. If you’re solitary and territorial and you detect another fish in the area, you want to know exactly who that fish is. Is it a potential competitor, a potential mate, or a different species you’re not worried about?

On the other hand, if you’re living in a shoal or school of fish, it’s not so important to identify individuals. Just sticking with the group is going to be a successful strategy.”

Christa A Baker, Kevin R Huck, Bruce A Carlson
Peripheral sensory coding through oscillatory synchrony in weakly electric fish
eLife 2015;4:e08163

Last Updated on October 31, 2022