In animals with active sensory systems, group size can have dramatic effects on the sensory information available to individuals. In "wave-type" weakly electric fishes there is a categorical difference in sensory processing between solitary fish and fish in groups: when conspecifics are within about 1m of each other, the electric fields mix and produce interference patterns that are detected by electroreceptors on each individual. Neural circuits in these animals must therefore process two streams of information-salient signals from prey items and predators and social signals from nearby conspecifics. We investigated the parameters of social signals in two genera of sympatric weakly electric fishes, Apteronotus and Sternopygus, in natural habitats of the Napo River valley in Ecuador and in laboratory settings. Apteronotus were most commonly found in pairs along the Napo River (47% of observations; maximum group size 4) and produced electrosensory interference at rates of 20-300 Hz. In contrast, Sternopygus were alone in 80% of observations (maximum group size 2) in the same region of Ecuador. Similar patterns were observed in laboratory experiments: Apteronotus were in groups and preferentially approached conspecific-like signals in an electrotaxis experiment whereas Sternopygus tended to be solitary and did not approach conspecific-like electrosensory signals. These results demonstrate categorical differences in social electrosensory-related activation of central nervous system circuits that may be related to the evolution of the jamming avoidance response that is used in Apteronotus but not Sternopygus to increase the frequency of electrosensory interference patterns.
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