Weakly electric fish in the genus Sternopygus emit a sinusoidal, individually distinct, and sexually dimorphic electric organ discharge (EOD) that is used in electrolocation and communication. Systemically applied androgens decrease EOD frequency, which is set by a medullary pacemaker nucleus, and increase pulse duration, which is determined by the cells of the electric organ (the electrocytes), in a coordinated fashion. One possibility is that androgens broaden the EOD pulse duration by acting on the pacemaker neurons, thereby effecting a change in pacemaker firing frequency, and that the change in EOD pulse duration is due to an activity-dependent process. To determine whether androgens can alter pulse duration despite a stable pacemaker nucleus firing frequency, we implanted small doses of dihydrotestosterone in the electric organ. We found that androgen implants increased EOD pulse duration, but did not influence EOD frequency. In addition, using immunocytochemistry, we found that electrocytes label positively with an androgen receptor antibody. While it is not known on which cells androgens act directly, together these experiments suggest that they likely act on the electrocytes to increase EOD pulse duration. Since pulse duration is determined by electrocyte action potential duration and ionic current kinetics, androgens may therefore play a causative role in influencing individual variation and sexual dimorphism in electrocyte electrical excitability, an important component of electrocommunicatory behavior.
Copyright 2001 Academic Press.