Electric Field Detection in Sawfish and Shovelnose Rays Academic Article uri icon


  • In the aquatic environment, living organisms emit weak dipole electric fields, which spread in the surrounding water. Elasmobranchs detect these dipole electric fields with their highly sensitive electroreceptors, the ampullae of Lorenzini. Freshwater sawfish, Pristis microdon, and two species of shovelnose rays, Glaucostegus typus and Aptychotrema rostrata were tested for their reactions towards weak artificial electric dipole fields. The comparison of sawfishes and shovelnose rays sheds light on the evolution and function of the elongated rostrum ('saw') of sawfish, as both groups evolved from a shovelnose ray-like ancestor. Electric stimuli were presented both on the substrate (to mimic benthic prey) and suspended in the water column (to mimic free-swimming prey). Analysis of around 480 behavioural sequences shows that all three species are highly sensitive towards weak electric dipole fields, and initiate behavioural responses at median field strengths between 5.15 and 79.6 nV cm(-1). The response behaviours used by sawfish and shovelnose rays depended on the location of the dipoles. The elongation of the sawfish's rostrum clearly expanded their electroreceptive search area into the water column and enables them to target free-swimming prey.


  • Wueringer, Barbara E
  • Jnr, Lyle Squire
  • Kajiura, Stephen M
  • Tibbetts, Ian R
  • Hart, Nathan S
  • Collin, Shaun P

publication date

  • July 25, 2012