Date of Award

2012

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Science

Department

Biology

First Advisor

Dr. Phillip Stoddard

Abstract

Weakly electric fish produce a dual function electric signal that makes them ideal models for the study of sensory computation and signal evolution. This signal, the electric organ discharge (EOD), is used for communication and navigation. In some families of gymnotiform electric fish, the EOD is a dynamic signal that increases in amplitude during social interactions. Amplitude increase could facilitate communication by increasing the likelihood of being sensed by others or by impressing prospective mates or rivals. Conversely, by increasing its signal amplitude a fish might increase its sensitivity to objects by lowering its electrolocation detection threshold. To determine how EOD modulations elicited in the social context affect electrolocation, I developed an automated and fast method for measuring electroreception thresholds using a classical conditioning paradigm. This method employs a moving shelter tube, which these fish occupy at rest during the day, paired with an electrical stimulus. A custom built and programmed robotic system presents the electrical stimulus to the fish, slides the shelter tube requiring them to follow, and records video of their movements. I trained the electric fish of the genus Sternopygus was trained to respond to a resistive stimulus on this apparatus in 2 days. The motion detection algorithm correctly identifies the responses 91% of the time, with a false positive rate of only 4%. This system allows for a large number of trials, decreasing the amount of time needed to determine behavioral electroreception thresholds. This novel method enables the evaluation the evolutionary interplay between two conflicting sensory forces, social communication and navigation.

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