Signal Cloaking by Electric Fish

Bioscience. 2008;58(5):415-425. doi: 10.1641/B580508.


Electric fish produce weak electric fields to image their world in darkness and to communicate with potential mates and rivals. Eavesdropping by electroreceptive predators exerts selective pressure on electric fish to shift their signals into less-detectable high-frequency spectral ranges. Hypopomid electric fish evolved a signal-cloaking strategy that reduces their detectability by predators in the lab (and thus presumably their risk of predation in the field). These fish produce broad-frequency electric fields close to the body, but the heterogeneous local fields merge over space to cancel the low-frequency spectrum at a distance. Mature males dynamically regulate this cloaking mechanism to enhance or suppress low-frequency energy. The mechanism underlying electric-field cloaking involves electrogenic cells that produce two independent action potentials. In a unique twist, these cells orient sodium and potassium currents in the same direction, potentially boosting their capabilities for current generation. Exploration of such evolutionary inventions could aid the design of biogenerators to power implantable medical devices, an ambition that would benefit from the complete genome sequence of a gymnotiform fish.