The dorsal filament of the weakly electric Apteronotidae (Gymnotiformes; Teleostei) is specialized for electroreception

Brain Behav Evol. 1996;47(4):165-78. doi: 10.1159/000113236.


The Apteronotidae, a family of weakly electric fish from South America (Gymnotiformes), possess a structure called the dorsal filament with an unknown function and evolutionary origin. This study compared the gross anatomy of the dorsal filament of 13 species of apteronotids and used light microscopy to examine the filaments of Adontosternarchus balaenops, Apteronotus albifrons, and Apteronotus leptorhynchus. The dorsal filament is an unscaled, thin, tapering structure attached to a mid-dorsal groove on the posterior half of the fish's back. The interior of the filament is a gelatinous mucopolysaccharide matrix (connective tissue) containing blood vessels and a bilateral nerve in which nearly all the afferents are large (8-10 mu m) and heavily myelinated. The location of the anterior origin of the filament varies from 0.48 to 0.66 of the body length, posterior to the snout, in 13 species. The filament is covered with hundreds of large-type tuberous electroreceptors and some ampullary receptors, at approximately the same density and ratio as those on the nearby back. The morphology of the large-type tuberous receptors and their afferents suggests that they are phase-coding T-units. A double layer of epithelial cells separates the ventral side of the filament from the groove in the trunk of the fish, except at the anterior origin where the interior of the filament is continuous with the body. This specialized double epithelium could provide a high resistance barrier to electrical current. This study was unable to distinguish between two hypotheses: that the dorsal filament is a modified adipose fin (as suggested previously), retained only in this family of Gymnotiformes; or that it is a uniquely derived character of the Apteronotidae.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / innervation
  • Afferent Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Animals
  • Back / innervation
  • Biological Evolution
  • Electric Conductivity
  • Electric Fish / anatomy & histology*
  • Glycosaminoglycans / metabolism
  • Peripheral Nerves / anatomy & histology*
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / anatomy & histology*
  • Skin / innervation*
  • Species Specificity


  • Glycosaminoglycans