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Collective sensing: Electric fish can 'see' through others' eyes

In an intriguing new study, a team of researchers led by Columbia University has found that African weakly electric fish, also known as elephantnose fish, exhibit a remarkable form of collective sensing akin to a hypothetical scenario where each member of a basketball team could see through the others’ eyes. 

This shared sensory perception could significantly aid these fish in locating food and identifying allies and adversaries in their environment.

The research was led by Dr. Nathaniel Sawtell, a principal investigator at the Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute and professor of neuroscience at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Federico Pedraja, a postdoctoral research associate.

Social learning in electric fish 

The experts discovered that African weakly electric fish can learn and execute complex, multi-step tasks as a group, a feat that challenges the assumption that advanced social learning is unique to humans and hints at elements of cumulative culture within these aquatic creatures.

“In engineering it is common that groups of emitters and receivers work together to improve sensing, for example in sonar and radar. We showed that something similar may be happening in groups of fish that sense their environment using electrical pulses. These fish seem to ‘see’ much better in small groups,” explained Sawtell. 

Collective sensing among electric fish 

The study provides compelling evidence that the electric fish species Gnathonemus petersii performs a swift act of collective sensing, a phenomenon not previously documented in the biological realm.

Electric fish utilize specialized organs to emit and detect electric fields, aiding in communication and an electric form of echolocation for navigating their dark, murky river habitats in Africa. 

Sophisticated sensory abilities 

Considering these challenges, the scientists proposed that these fish might have evolved sensory abilities comparable to networked radar and sonar systems, which can detect objects with greater range and detail through collaboration.

By developing a computer model to simulate the electric environment of these fish, the researchers assessed whether individual electric fish could enhance their object detection capabilities by accessing signals from their peers. 

Beaming images at the speed of light

“Think of these external signals as electric images of the objects that nearby electric fish automatically produce and beam to nearby fish at the speed of light,” said Pedraja. 

“Our work suggests that three fish in a group would each receive three different ‘electrical views’ of the same scene at virtually the same time,” Sawtell added.

One of the simulation’s key findings, as noted by Sawtell, is that collective sensing could triple the electro-location range of electric fish, likely providing substantial survival benefits.

Electrical communication 

Further investigation sought a neural basis for this ability in G. petersii. Brain recordings related to the electrosensory system revealed that the fish respond to both their own discharges and external electrical signals. The alignment of brain activity patterns with the simulation predictions was particularly exciting for the scientists.

Behavioral observations reinforced the notion of collective sensing, with the fish forming specific patterns that facilitate shared sensing and engaging in electrical communication that suggests a coordinated effort. This behavior might be crucial for the fish’s collective sensing capabilities.

Big brains for collective sensing 

“These fish have some of the biggest brain-to-body mass ratios of any animal on the planet. Perhaps these enormous brains are needed for rapid and highly sophisticated social sensing and collective behavior,” Sawtell said.

This discovery opens new paths for exploring animal intelligence and social learning evolution, challenging existing beliefs and offering insights into potential applications in artificial sensing technologies, including underwater autonomous vehicles and medical imaging.

The study is published in the journal Nature.


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