Temporal structure of non-propagated electric communication signals

Brain Behav Evol. 1986;28(1-3):43-59. doi: 10.1159/000118691.


Acoustic and electric communication differ in one important respect: while acoustic communication signals propagate through air or water as a wave, electric signals do not propagate, but exist instead as electrostatic fields. As a result of propagation, acoustic signals are distorted during transmission in a largely unpredictable way. Sound receivers, therefore, may not be able to recognize fine details in the waveform of an acoustic signal, but may have to rely instead upon time intervals between repetitions of a waveform, on the frequency of a signal, or on frequency modulations. By contrast, non-propagating electric communication signals are immune to many sources of signal distortion that affect sounds. Consequently, electric signal receivers may reliably use waveform cues to recognize a sender's identity and discriminate between signals. As examples, mormyrid electric fish encode species and sex differences in the fine structure of the electric organ discharge waveform and sense the differences using temporal cues. Gymnotiform pulse-discharging electric fish may employ scan-sampling for waveform analysis: a specialized mechanism analogous to a digital sampling oscilloscope for slowly scanning a repetitive waveform.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acoustics
  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Electric Fish / physiology*
  • Electric Organ / physiology*
  • Electricity
  • Sense Organs / physiology
  • Species Specificity
  • Vocalization, Animal