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Electrolocation is an aspect of animal foraging behavior the ability of animals to detect objects, usually prey, in their environment through the use biological sensors that respond to electrical fields. This is important in ecological niches where the animal cannot depend on vision: for example in caves, in murky water and at night. Many fish use electric fields to detect buried prey. Some shark embryos and pups "freeze" when they detect the characteristic electric signal of their predators[1].

Recent studies of Guiana dolphins have identified them as the second mammal after the platypus to be shown to have this ability.[citation needed]

Passive electrolocation

In passive electrolocation, the animal senses the weak bioelectric fields generated by other animals and uses it to locate them. These electric fields are generated by all animals due to the activity of their nerves and muscles. A second source of electric fields in fish is the ion pumps associated with osmoregulation at the gill membrane. This field is modulated by the opening and closing of the mouth and gill slits[1] [2]. Many fish that prey on electrogenic fish use the discharges of their prey to detect them. This has driven the prey to evolve more complex or higher frequency signals that are harder to detect[3].

Passive electroreception is carried out solely by ampullary electroreceptors in fish. It is tuned to low frequency signals (less than 1 Hz to tens of Hz).

Fish use passive electroreception supplement or replace their other senses when detecting prey and predators. In sharks, sensing an electric dipole alone is sufficient to cause them to try and eat it.

It has been proposed that sharks can use their acute electric sense to detect the earth's magnetic field by detecting the weak electric currents induced by their swimming or by the flow of ocean currents.


In active electrorelocation, the animal senses its surrounding environment by generating electric fields and detecting distortions in these fields using electroreceptor organs. This electric field is generated by means of a specialised electric organ consisting of modified muscle or nerves. This field may be modulated so that its frequency and wave form are unique to the species and sometimes, the individual (see Jamming avoidance response). Animals that use active electroreception include the weakly electric fish, which generate small electrical pulses (typically less than one volt). Weakly electric fish can discriminate between objects with different resistance and capacitance values, which may help in identifying the object. Active electroreception typically has a range of about one body length, though objects with an electrical resistance similar to that of the surrounding water are nearly undetectable.


File:Platypus in Geelong.jpg

Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)

Monotremes (platypus and Echidna) are the only mammals known to have a sense of electroreception: they locate their prey in part by detecting electric fields generated by muscular contractions. The platypus' electroreception is the most sensitive of any monotreme.[4][5]

The electroreceptors are located in rostrocaudal rows in the skin of the bill, while mechanoreceptors (which detect touch) are uniformly distributed across the bill. The electrosensory area of the cerebral cortex is contained within the tactile somatosensory area, and some cortical cells receive input from both electroreceptors and mechanoreceptors, suggesting a close association between the tactile and electric senses. Both electroreceptors and mechanoreceptors in the bill dominate the somatotopic map of the platypus brain, in the same way human hands dominate the Penfield homunculus map.[6][7]

The platypus can determine the direction of an electric source, perhaps by comparing differences in signal strength across the sheet of electroreceptors. This would explain the characteristic side-to-side motion of the animal's head while hunting. The cortical convergence of electrosensory and tactile inputs suggests a mechanism for determining the distance of prey items which, when they move, emit both electrical signals and mechanical pressure pulses; the difference between the times of arrival of the two signals would allow computation of distance.[5]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Coplin, Shaun P., Darryl Whitehead (2004). The functional roles of passive electroreception in non-electric shes. Animal Biology 54 (1): 1-25.
  3. Stoddard, Philip K. (2002). The evolutionary origins of electric signal complexity. Journal of Physiology - Paris 96: 485–491.
  4. Proske, Uwe, J. E. Gregory and A. Iggo (1998). Sensory receptors in monotremes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 353 (1372): 1187–1198.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Pettigrew, John D. (1999). Electroreception in Monotremes. The Journal of Experimental Biology 202 (202): 1447–1454.
  6. Pettigrew, John D., P R Manger, and S L Fine (1998). The sensory world of the platypus. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 353 (1372): 1199–1210.
  7. Dawkins, Richard (2004). "The Duckbill's Tale" The Ancestor's Tale, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
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