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J Exp Biol. 1999 May;202(Pt 10):1217-28.

Design features for electric communication.

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  • 1Section of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


How do the communication discharges produced by electric fish evolve to accommodate the unique design features for the modality? Two design features are considered: first, the limited range of signaling imposed on the electric modality by the physics of signal transmission from dipole sources; and second, the absence of signal echoes and reverberations for electric discharges, which are non-propagating electrostatic fields. Electrostatic theory predicts that electric discharges from fish will have a short range because of the inverse cube law of geometric spreading around an electrostatic dipole. From this, one predicts that the costs of signaling will be high when fish attempt to signal over a large distance. Electric fish may economize in signal production whenever possible. For example, some gymnotiform fish appear to be impedance-matched to the resistivity of the water; others modulate the amplitude of their discharge seasonally and diurnally. The fact that electric signals do not propagate, but exist as electrostatic fields, means that, unlike sound signals, electric organ discharges produce no echoes or reverberations. Because temporal information is preserved during signal transmission, receivers may pay close attention to the temporal details of electric signals. As a consequence, electric organs have evolved with mechanisms for controlling the fine structure of electric discharge waveforms.

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