They know from their previous research that the various groups of local electric fish have different DNA, different communication patterns and won't mate with each other. However, they now have found a case where two types of electric signals come from fish that have the same DNA.
The researchers' conclusion: The fish appear to be on the verge of forming two separate species.
"We think we are seeing evolution in action," said Matt Arnegard, a neurobiology postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Carl Hopkins, Cornell professor of neurobiology and behavior, who has been recording electric fish in Gabon since the 1970s.
The research, published in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, describes how some of these fish violate an otherwise regular pattern of mating behavior, and so could be living examples of a species of fish diverging into separate species.
The electric fish -- known as mormyrids -- emit weak electric fields from a batterylike organ in their tails to sense their surroundings and communicate with other fish. Each species of mormyrid gives off a single characteristic electric impulse resulting in the flash of signals, indicating, for example, aggression, courtship and fear. While the fish may be able to understand other species' impulses, said Arnegard, "They seem to only choose to mate with other fish having the same signature waveform as their own."
Except for some, Arnegard has discovered.
When he joined Hopkins' lab, the team was about to publish descriptions of two separate species. But when Arnegard decided to take a genetic look at these particular fish, he couldn't find any differences in their DNA sequences.