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The electric field of a weakly electric fish


Rasnow, Brian K. (1994) The electric field of a weakly electric fish. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/HP2S-P152.


Freshwater fish of the genus Apteronotus (family Gymnotidae) generate a weak, high frequency electric field (< 100 mV/cm, 0.5-10 kHz) which permeates their local environment. These nocturnal fish are acutely sensitive to perturbations in their electric field caused by other electric fish, and nearby objects whose impedance is different from the surrounding water. This thesis presents high temporal and spatial resolution maps of the electric potential and field on and near Apteronotus. The fish's electric field is a complicated and highly stable function of space and time. Its characteristics, such as spectral composition, timing, and rate of attenuation, are examined in terms of physical constraints, and their possible functional roles in electroreception.

Temporal jitter of the periodic field is less than 1 µsec. However, electrocyte activity is not globally synchronous along the fish 's electric organ. The propagation of electrocyte activation down the fish's body produces a rotation of the electric field vector in the caudal part of the fish. This may assist the fish in identifying nonsymmetrical objects, and could also confuse electrosensory predators that try to locate Apteronotus by following its fieldlines. The propagation also results in a complex spatiotemporal pattern of the EOD potential near the fish. Visualizing the potential on the same and different fish over timescales of several months suggests that it is stable and could serve as a unique signature for individual fish.

Measurements of the electric field were used to calculate the effects of simple objects on the fish's electric field. The shape of the perturbation or "electric image" on the fish's skin is relatively independent of a simple object's size, conductivity, and rostrocaudal location, and therefore could unambiguously determine object distance. The range of electrolocation may depend on both the size of objects and their rostrocaudal location. Only objects with very large dielectric constants cause appreciable phase shifts, and these are strongly dependent on the water conductivity.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Physics
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy
Major Option:Physics
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Pine, Jerome
Thesis Committee:
  • Unknown, Unknown
Defense Date:14 March 1994
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05162013-153557999
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:7719
Deposited On:17 May 2013 17:46
Last Modified:02 Dec 2020 02:19

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