Because all of the 20 or so species of mormyrid have distinct electric signals, Arnegard believes the different impulses of the fish he studies might be their first step in diverging into different species.
"This might be a snapshot of evolution," Arnegard said.
Understanding how animals become different species, a process known as speciation, is a major concern in understanding evolution. Arnegard's fish may allow researchers to test if a specific type of speciation is possible.
One common type of speciation is geographically dependent. Animals diverge into separate species because they become physically isolated from each other. Eventually, genes within each group mutate so that the groups can no longer be considered to be of the same species.
Another type of speciation, which many scientists have found harder to imagine, involves animals that live in the same geographic location but, for some reason, begin to mate selectively and form distinct groups and, ultimately, separate species. This so-called sympatric speciation is more controversial because there have been few accepted examples of it to date.
"Many scientists claim it's not feasible," Arnegard said. "But it could be a detection problem because speciation occurs over so many generations." These Gabon fishes' impulses, however, can change very quickly in comparison. So Arnegard suspects that the different shapes of the electric impulses from these mormyrids might be a first step in sympatric speciation.
One the other hand, the fish could be a single species. "This could be just a polymorphism, like eye color in humans, that violates the fishes' general evolutionary pattern but doesn't give rise to separate species," said Arnegard, who will return to Gabon in June to conduct further tests, funded by the National Geographic Society.