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Electric Fish Charges up Research on Animal Behavior

December 15, 2015

An electric eel can generate enough current to stun its prey, just like a Taser. Weakly electric fish can also generate electricity but not enough to do any harm. “Weakly electric fish are unique in that they produce and detect electric fields. They use these electric fields in social communication and to detect objects,” explains Johns Hopkins University neuroethologist Eric Fortune. Fortune has traveled to Ecuador to study weakly electric knifefish in their native habitat, even placing acoustical instruments underwater so he could listen to and record their electrical hums. Back at Johns Hopkins University, research collaborator mechanical engineer Noah Cowan and the rest of the team use Fortune’s field data to help with their observations and experiments in the lab. With support from the National Science Foundation, they are studying the knifefish to learn more about how the brains of animals work to control their behavior. “We see how they interact in the wild and then we create very controlled experiments in the lab that allows us to probe specific scientific questions. Researchers want to better understand how these fish use their electric field as a sixth sense, not only to communicate with each other, but to navigate their surroundings and find their next meal,” explains Cowan.

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