Prey-capture behavior in gymnotid electric fish: Motion analysis and effects of water conductivity

M. A. MacIver, N. M. Sharabash, M. E. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Animals can actively influence the content and quality of sensory information they acquire from the environment through the positioning of peripheral sensory surfaces. This study investigated receptor surface positioning during prey-capture behavior in weakly electric gymnotiform fish of the genus Apteronotus. Infrared video techniques and three-dimensional model-based tracking methods were used to provide quantitative information on body position and conformation as black ghost (A. albifrons) and brown ghost (A. leptorhynchus) knifefish hunted for prey (Daphnia magna) in the dark. We found that detection distance depends on the electrical conductivity of the surrounding water. Best performance was observed at low water conductivity (2.8 cm mean detection distance and 2% miss rate at 35 μS cm-1, A. albifrons) and poorest performance at high conductivity (1.5cm mean detection distance and 11% miss rate at 600 μS cm-1, A. albifrons). The observed conductivity-dependence implies that nonvisual prey detection in Apteronotus is likely to be dominated by the electrosense over the range of water conductivities experienced by the animal in its natural environment. This result provides the first evidence for the involvement of electrosensory cues in the prey-capture behavior of gymnotids, but it leaves open the possibility that both the high-frequency (tuberous) and low-frequency (ampullary) electroreceptors may contribute. We describe an electrosensory orienting response to prey, whereby the fish rolls its body following detection to bring the prey above the dorsum. This orienting response and the spatial distribution of prey at the time of detection highlight the importance of the dorsal surface of the trunk for electrosensory signal acquisition. Finally, quantitative analysis of fish motion demonstrates that Apteronotus can adapt its trajectory to account for post-detection motion of the prey, suggesting that it uses a closed-loop adaptive tracking strategy, rather than an open-loop ballistic strike strategy, to intercept the prey.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)543-557
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001


  • Active sensing
  • Backwards locomotion
  • Computational neuroethology
  • Conductivity
  • Electrolocation
  • Electroreception
  • Mechanosensory lateral line
  • Motion capture
  • Nonvisual orienting behaviour
  • Reverse swimming
  • Sensory ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)


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