Differences in electrosensory anatomy and social behavior in an area of sympatry between two species of mormyrid electric fishes

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Sensory systems play a key role in social behavior by mediating the detection and analysis of communication signals. In mormyrid fishes, electric signals are processed within a dedicated sensory pathway, providing a unique opportunity to relate sensory biology to social behavior. Evolutionary changes within this pathway led to new perceptual abilities that have been linked to increased rates of signal evolution and species diversification in a lineage called 'clade A'. Previous field observations suggest that clade-A species tend to be solitary and territorial, whereas non-clade-A species tend to be clustered in high densities suggestive of schooling or shoaling. To explore behavioral differences between species in these lineages in greater detail, I studied population densities, social interactions, and electric signaling in two mormyrid species, Gnathonemus victoriae (clade A) and Petrocephalus degeni (non-clade A), from Lwamunda Swamp, Uganda. Petrocephalus degeni was found at higher population densities, but intraspecific diversity in electric signal waveform was greater in G. victoriae. In the laboratory, G. victoriae exhibited strong shelter-seeking behavior and competition for shelter, whereas P. degeni were more likely to abandon shelter in the presence of conspecifics as well as electric mimics of signaling conspecifics. In other words, P. degeni exhibited social affiliation whereas G. victoriae exhibited social competition. Further, P. degeni showed correlated electric signaling behavior whereas G. victoriae showed anti-correlated signaling behavior. These findings extend previous reports of social spacing, territoriality, and habitat preference among mormyrid species, suggesting that evolutionary divergence in electrosensory processing relates to differences in social behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-43
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


  • Animal communication
  • Brain evolution
  • Electroreception
  • Sensory ecology
  • Sensory processing
  • Social behavior


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