Royal Society Publishing


Passive electroreception is a widespread sense in fishes and amphibians, but in mammals this sensory ability has previously only been shown in monotremes. While the electroreceptors in fish and amphibians evolved from mechanosensory lateral line organs, those of monotremes are based on cutaneous glands innervated by trigeminal nerves. Electroreceptors evolved from other structures or in other taxa were unknown to date. Here we show that the hairless vibrissal crypts on the rostrum of the Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis), structures originally associated with the mammalian whiskers, serve as electroreceptors. Histological investigations revealed that the vibrissal crypts possess a well-innervated ampullary structure reminiscent of ampullary electroreceptors in other species. Psychophysical experiments with a male Guiana dolphin determined a sensory detection threshold for weak electric fields of 4.6 µV cm−1, which is comparable to the sensitivity of electroreceptors in platypuses. Our results show that electroreceptors can evolve from a mechanosensory organ that nearly all mammals possess and suggest the discovery of this kind of electroreception in more species, especially those with an aquatic or semi-aquatic lifestyle.

  • Received May 31, 2011.
  • Accepted July 5, 2011.
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