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Electric fish experts conduct workshop on current research

Earlier this month, two Cornell electric fish experts gave a workshop on a topic that had never been taught before: How to record electric signals produced by Africa’s freshwater mormyrid fishes.

Mormyrid fishes emit weak electric pulses from an organ near their tails to sense their environment in the dark, locate prey and communicate. The discharge creates an electric field that receptors in their skin can sense.

Fish experts, called ichthyologists, can use these signals to discover and describe many still-undocumented species of mormyrid fish. Until now, knowledge of how to record these pulses has been limited to just a few U.S. and European specialists.

The workshop, held Oct. 1-4 at the University of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was led by Carl Hopkins, Cornell professor emeritus of neurobiology and behavior, and John Sullivan, curatorial affiliate at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates.

More than 20 participants included ichthyologists, students and teachers from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, South Africa and Belgium.

“These [electric discharges] are very useful for those of us studying the taxonomy of these fish, since with each pulse an individual is essentially advertising what species it belongs to,” Sullivan said. “Because anatomical differences among closely related species are often subtle, making use of this extra source of data for discovering new species is really important.”

- Krishna Ramanujan

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