Electric signaling behavior and the mechanisms of electric organ discharge production in mormyrid fish

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Mormyrid fish communicate and navigate using electric organ discharges (EODs). The EOD is highly stereotyped and provides information on sender identity, including species, sex, reproductive condition, and possibly relative status and individual identity. By contrast, the sequence of pulse intervals (SPI) is variable and plays more of a role in signaling behavioral states. Various types of SPI displays may be produced, including tonic patterns such as 'random' and 'regularized', and phasic patterns such as 'bursts' and 'cessations'. Certain displays have been linked to specific behaviors such as aggression, submission, courtship and active exploration. In addition, interacting pairs of fish may produce stereotyped displays involving the relative timing of their EODs. The EOD waveform is controlled by the morphological and physiological properties of cells in the electric organ termed electrocytes. Differences in the innervation, morphology, size and membrane characteristics of electrocytes have been directly linked to species and sex differences in the EOD. The generation of each EOD is initiated in the medullary command nucleus (CN), which thereby determines the timing of EOD output. CN does not have any properties of a pacemaker, but rather appears to integrate descending inputs that affect the probability of EOD production. The precommand nucleus (PCN) provides a major source of excitatory input to CN and is itself inhibited by corollary discharge feedback following the production of each EOD. Changes in the activity of PCN and its inhibitory feedback neurons modify EOD output, and therefore drive the generation of SPI patterns. Current studies are addressing the mechanisms underlying the generation of these patterns and preliminary results suggest that different types of signals may be controlled by distinct components of the electromotor system. This is similar to findings in other electrogenic teleosts, suggesting that it may be a general feature in the motor control of signaling behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)405-419
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Physiology Paris
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - 2002


  • Central pattern generator
  • Command
  • Communication
  • Electric fish
  • Pacemaker


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