Electric organ discharge patterns during group hunting by a mormyrid fish

Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Jul 7;272(1570):1305-14. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2005.3101.


Weakly electric fish emit and receive low-voltage electric organ discharges (EODs) for electrolocation and communication. Since the discovery of the electric sense, their behaviours in the wild have remained elusive owing to their nocturnal habits and the inaccessible environments in which they live. The transparency of Lake Malawi provided the first opportunity to simultaneously observe freely behaving mormyrid fish and record their EODs. We observed a piscivorous mormyrid, Mormyrops anguilloides, hunting in small groups in Lake Malawi while feeding on rock-frequenting cichlids of the largest known vertebrate species flock. Video recordings yielded the novel and unexpected finding that these groups resembled hunting packs by being largely composed of the same individuals across days. We show that EOD accelerations accompany prey probing and size estimation by M. anguilloides. In addition, group members occasionally synchronize bursts of EODs with an extraordinary degree of precision afforded by the mormyrid echo response. The characteristics and context of burst synchronization suggest that it may function as a pack cohesion signal. Our observations highlight the potential richness of social behaviours in a basal vertebrate lineage, and provide a framework for future investigations of the neural mechanisms, behavioural rules and ecological significance of social predation in M. anguilloides.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Electric Fish / physiology*
  • Electric Organ / physiology*
  • Fresh Water
  • Malawi
  • Predatory Behavior / physiology*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Video Recording