Mormyrid fish as fashions for investigating sensory-motor integration – Journal of Zoology Weblog


Skeels, S., von der Emde, G. and Burt de Perera, T. (2023). Mormyrid fish as fashions for investigating sensory-motor integration: A behavioural perspective. Journal of Zoology, vol. 319, pp. 243-253.

Weakly electrical fish epitomise what’s strange in regards to the pure world. They possess a novel sense which is alien to us. These fish generate and detect low voltage electrical fields which they use to navigate, forage, and talk of their dimly lit, watery environments. There are two lineages which have developed this superb means independently: the Gymnotiformes from the Neotropics and the Mormyriformes from Africa. There are various a whole lot of species of weakly electrical fish, and so they exhibit a various vary of morphologies, electrical signalling patterns, feeding behaviours, and ranges of sociality. Because the Nineteen Fifties, nice steps have been made in understanding electrosensing in these fish. Weakly electrical fish have now turn into essential fashions within the life sciences, contributing to the fields of neuroscience, evolution and growth, physiology, and behavior, to call however a number of. Though this sense may be difficult to check as we ourselves don’t expertise the world on this means, we will fastidiously design experiments which allow us to interrogate this sense and assist us perceive the perceptual talents of those charismatic animals.

Determine 1. The Peter’s elephantnose fish (Gnathonemus petersii), a weakly electrical fish which makes use of low voltage electrical fields for navigation, foraging, and communication. This species is discovered throughout central and western Africa. They’re characterised by their elongated chin appendage proven right here (generally known as a Schnauzenorgan). They use their Schnauzenorgan for a wide range of duties, akin to discovering prey buried below sediment. Picture by Sarah Skeels
Determine 2. Sarah Skeels within the Electrical Fish Lab in Oxford. Picture by Sarah Skeels

I’ve labored with weakly electrical fish for round seven years on the College of Oxford within the UK. I’m an experimental biologist by coaching, with an curiosity in understanding how these animals coordinate the actions of their sensory and motor methods to optimise their behaviour. Weakly electrical fish are nice candidates for finding out such a interplay, as they’ve a well-characterised electrosensory system and present behaviours that appear to be related to sensing. Within the lab, it’s potential to not solely file the behaviour of those fish while sensing, however you can too file the electrical alerts generated by them. To do that, I put electrodes within the tank with the freely behaving animal. The electrodes choose up the electrical alerts that are amplified after which despatched to a pc for evaluation. These alerts may be visualised on the pc with specialised software program. I may also connect a speaker to the amplifier which permits me to acquire an audio illustration of the electrical area. Since my fish produce discrete electrical pulses, the sound might be in comparison with that of a typewriter! These visible and audio representations of the electrical alerts assist me to get a way of this distinctive sensory system with which I’ve no first-hand expertise.

I primarily research sensory-motor interactions within the Peter’s elephantnose fish (Gnathonemus petersii). These fish are characterised by their elongated chin appendage (generally known as the Schnauzenorgan) which is usually mistaken for a trunk- therefore the title! The Schnauzenorgan performs an essential half in sensing, significantly for locating invertebrate prey hidden below substrate. These fish is usually a problem to maintain within the laboratory as they’re delicate to adjustments of their atmosphere. Nonetheless, they’re extremely inquisitive with wonderful reminiscences, making them well-suited for behavioural experiments that require coaching. I exploit these types of experiments to research how their very own physique actions can alter the electrosensory panorama which they expertise.

Determine 3. The setup used to file the electrical alerts produced by G. petersii throughout exploration. Two electrodes are positioned at both finish of the tank. These electrodes choose up the alerts that are then despatched to the pc for evaluation. Picture by Sarah Skeels

I design experiments the place I modify the sensory enter that the animal receives after which file their motor output (behaviour). I can then make inferences on how these streams of data are processed and built-in collectively. To get to the guts of this drawback, I exploit operant conditioning to coach fish to finish a puzzle (normally within the type of an object recognition job), the place people are rewarded for making the proper selection and are mildly punished for making an incorrect selection. This will increase their behaviour that yields a constructive response and reduces their behaviour that ends in a unfavorable consequence. I exploit meals (bloodworm) as a reward since these fish (like numerous animals) are extremely meals motivated! When a person makes a mistake, I present a gentle punishment, normally within the type of a delicate faucet on the tank glass adopted by a shoo to the beginning space. I’m very cautious when choosing a gentle punishment to decide on one thing aversive for the fish however not sufficient to inflict stress. You will need to restrict stress as a lot as potential as this will have a unfavorable affect on well-being and the behaviours you are attempting to file.

Animal coaching may be very time consuming, however additionally it is very rewarding! Certainly one of my favorite elements of doing these types of experiments is seeing the second when a person lastly learns the duty and may full it efficiently and persistently. It makes all of the exhausting work value it! As soon as I’m assured the fish have discovered the duty, I can change one of many parameters of the duty and check if this has an affect on their behaviour. Throughout these assessments, I’m cautious to not reward or punish, as I are not looking for the fish to endure additional studying and for this to affect their behaviour. I need to have the ability to attribute any adjustments in behaviour to the parameter modified and to not studying. It’s unimaginable to take away all different variables which may affect the fish’s behaviour, however controls are included to restrict these as a lot as potential. Trials the place rewards and gentle punishment are given may be interspliced with testing to make sure motivation stays excessive and efficiency is maintained. By these experiments I’ve discovered the significance of a person’s personal actions in facilitating extraction of cues from the atmosphere. Nonetheless, these findings should not solely related to understanding electrosensing in these fish, however they’ve applicability for understanding the behaviour of different animals with completely different senses who use motion to boost notion, since a few of the core ideas are the identical. Once more, this highlights how finding out weakly electrical fish can have a far-reaching affect.

Determine 4. A typical setup used for object recognition duties. A person begins within the ready space (compartment on the far proper). They then transfer into the center compartment, the place they will sense the positioned objects (within the far-left compartments). They make a selection by transferring the door of their chosen compartment and swimming by way of. Throughout coaching trials, they obtain a reward or gentle punishment relying on whether or not they made an accurate or incorrect selection. Picture by Sarah Skeels
Determine 5. Typical objects the fish are educated and examined with. These objects are constructed from aluminium. Picture by Sarah Skeels

In sum, I strongly advocate the usage of paradigms just like the one described above for serving to to know basic questions in behaviour (from perform to mechanism). They get pleasure from being non-invasive, and up to date developments in know-how now imply that we will file behaviours at very excessive decision and analyse them with extra refined strategies. This implies we will extract extra significant data from the info, permitting for higher interpretations of various behaviours. Behavioural work gives an essential and important framework from which different approaches can construct off on (e.g. mathematical modelling). As such, working within the area of animal behaviour is an thrilling place, because it lends itself to collaboration with individuals from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. I can’t wait to see the place the sector goes subsequent, and what different issues we will be taught from these actually exceptional fish!

Sarah Skeels (Postdoctoral researcher)


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